‘We’re bracing ourselves’: An impending drop in SNAP benefits leaves Summit County readying for a rise in hunger
Some families could see hundreds of dollars less in their monthly benefits beginning in March. It’s led county food providers to expect an increase in demand for their services.
With benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) set to drop to pre-pandemic levels in Colorado come March, food advocates in Summit County say they’re anticipating a dramatic increase in need once families lose potentially hundreds of dollars a month in federal food assistance.
“We’re bracing ourselves. We understand that this is going to have potentially a huge impact on our food bank,” said Brianne Snow, executive director for 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 boosted the maximum monthly payments to SNAP recipients through several pandemic relief spending bills as hunger rose across America. But February will be the last month that Coloradans will receive the increased aid, resulting in a roughly $90 reduction in monthly benefits 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.
“To recover from $360 is seemingly impossible,” Snow said, adding it will put pressure on parents to seek other jobs and possibly cut spending elsewhere. “This is kind of a make-or-break situation for some of these families.”
Summit County spokesperson Dave Rossi stated in a text message: “We are in close contact with (the Family & Intercultural Resource Center) and intend to work together to relay the changes to SNAP in various venues, including some of the social organizations that are going to be impacted.
“It’s vital we put energy behind them more than ever in the face of benefits changes that are going to drastically impact Summit families,” Rossi added.
The impending change comes at a time when county food providers are reporting increasingly high levels of residents coming to their doors. According to resource center data, the nonprofit saw 1,817 visitors to its food bank this past December, up from 841 in December 2021.
Margaret Sheehe, co-founder of the Breckenridge-based nonprofit Smart Bellies, said her organization — which offers weekend deliveries of bagged meals to families of school children in Summit County and Leadville — has also seen a rise in demand.
At the end of October and into the beginning of November, Sheehe said the group was serving around 550 children. This coming weekend, they’ll be serving more than 700, she said.
“This is the highest we’ve ever been, and it’s going up so much faster even then the heights in 2020 and 2021,” Sheehe said. “There’s so much going on for families — the cost of childcare, finding a job, keeping a job, transportation.”
According to an internal survey of Smart Bellies’ clients, which Sheehe said was compiled during this past fall, 15% of 149 respondents said they relied partly on SNAP for meals. About 33% said they rely on free and reduced lunches — an income-based program that allows some children in public schools to receive school meals for free or at a heavily reduced price.
Sheehe said many families in the county do not meet the income requirements for SNAP but are also not making enough money to fully support themselves financially — leaving some in a safety net limbo.
“The income level needed to qualify for SNAP is pretty low relative to what you need to live here,” Sheehe said.
According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, individuals, couples and families may qualify for SNAP if their income is less than 200% of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that represents a yearly income of no more than $27,192 before taxes. For a family of four, the threshold would be an income of $55,512.
During the pandemic, monthly SNAP allotments were based on family size rather than income — allowing families to reach the maximum allotment level for their size. But once those provisions expire, payments will return to a sliding scale based on recipients’ income.
As Snow put it, “if you move up or get a promotion, you’re punished accordingly with a drop in benefits.”
As community leaders prepare for what they said could be a major challenge for working families amid a volatile economy, they are also looking for solutions large and small.
Snow said she wants residents to “put themselves in these folks’ shoes and imagine what it’s like to not be able to feed their families.” Donations to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center or volunteer work will help the organization keep up with any potential influx in demand, she said.
Sheehe said while she is concerned about the drop in benefits, the statewide free school meal program approved by Colorado voters in November presents an important opportunity for districts to make a dent in childhood hunger.
Summit School District spokesperson Andrea Ridder said the district plans to opt into the program but is waiting on guidelines from the Colorado Department of Education and State Board of Education.
While Sheehe said she is excited about universal free meals in schools, she added the decline in SNAP benefits could leave some families with less spending power when it comes to their food.
“We can’t give that same choice and that same autonomy that SNAP can offer,” she said.
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