January 30, 2023

Fafay Grestan, a worker at the Family & Intercultural Resource Center in Silverthorne, carries food supplies for a drive-thru food bank on May 19, 2020. With monthly federal food aid payments to recipients set to fall in March 2023, community leaders are expecting a new wave of demand to slam at their doors.
Jason Connolly Archives/Summit Daily News

Benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are set to drop to pre-pandemic levels In Colorado next March, Summit County food advocates say they expect the need to rise dramatically once families lose potentially hundreds of dollars a month in state food aid.

“We’re arming ourselves. We understand that this will potentially have a huge impact on our food bank,” said Brianne Snow, executive director of the Silverthorne-based nonprofit Family & Intercultural Resource Center. “The timing of this SNAP reduction is terrible. Food prices have not gone down… and our cost of living in this community is still incredibly difficult to manage.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Congress has increased the maximum monthly payments to SNAP recipients through multiple pandemic relief spending bills as hunger mounted across America. However, February will be the last month that Coloradans will receive the increased aid, resulting in a reduction in monthly benefits of about $90 per person.

For the average family that the Family & Intercultural Resource Center serves — a single parent raising three children — that can mean a difference of $360 each month, Snow said.

“It’s seemingly impossible to recover from $360,” Snow said, adding that this will put pressure on parents to look for other jobs and potentially cut spending elsewhere. “For some of these families, this is kind of a make-or-break situation.”

Summit County spokesman Dave Rossi said in a text message, “We are in close contact with (the Family & Intercultural Resource Center) and intend to work together to propagate the changes to SNAP in various places, including some of the social organizations, they’re going to be affected.

“With performance changes that will have a drastic impact on Summit families, it’s critical that we put energy into them more than ever,” added Rossi.

The upcoming change comes at a time when county food providers are reporting increasing numbers of residents coming to their doors. According to the resource center, the nonprofit had 1,817 visitors to its panel last December, up from 841 in December 2021.

Margaret Sheehe, co-founder of the Breckenridge-based non-profit Smart Belliessaid her organization, which provides weekend deliveries of boxed meals to families of schoolchildren in Summit County and Leadville, has also seen an increase in demand.

According to Sheehe, the group ministered to around 550 children in late October and early November. They will be serving more than 700 next weekend, she said.

“This is the highest level we’ve ever reached, and it’s increasing so much faster, even than the highs in 2020 and 2021,” Sheehe said. “There is so much for families to deal with — the cost of childcare, finding a job, getting a job, transportation.”

According to an internal survey of Smart Bellies customers compiled last fall, Sheehe said, 15% of 149 respondents said they partially rely on SNAP for their meals. About 33% said they depend on Free and Reduced Lunches — an income-tested program that allows some children in public schools to receive school meals for free or at a greatly reduced price.

Sheehe said many families in the county don’t meet the income requirements for SNAP, but neither do they make enough money to support themselves financially — leaving some in a safety net.

“The level of income required to qualify for SNAP is pretty low compared to what you need to live here,” Sheehe said.

According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, Individuals, couples and families can qualify for SNAP if their income is less than 200% of the federal poverty line. For an individual, this equates to a pre-tax annual income of no more than $27,192. For a family of four, the threshold would be an income of $55,512.

During the pandemic, SNAP monthly grants were based on family size rather than income, allowing families to achieve the maximum grant level for their size. However, once these provisions expire, payments will be staggered again based on recipients’ income.

As Snow put it, “If you move up or get promoted, you will be penalized accordingly with a drop in performance.”

As community leaders prepare for what they believe could be a major challenge for working families amid a volatile economy, they also seek solutions big and small.

Snow said she wants residents to “put themselves in the shoes of these people and imagine what it’s like not being able to support their families.” Donations to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center or volunteering will help the organization keep up with a potential influx of demand, she said.

Sheehe said while concerned about the drop in benefits, the statewide free school meals program was approved by Colorado voters in November represents an important opportunity for districts to address child hunger.

Summit School District spokeswoman Andrea Ridder said the district plans to participate in the program but is awaiting guidance from the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

While Sheehe said she’s excited about universal free meals in schools, she added that the decline in SNAP benefits could leave some families with less purchasing power when it comes to their food.

“We can’t offer the same choice and autonomy that SNAP can offer,” she said.

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