Summit County residents miss out on $3.2 million in federal food assistance

Shopping carts rest in a grocery store parking lot in Frisco Tuesday, March 6.
Hugh Carey / |

Millions of dollars in federal funds were left on Washington’s table again last year, as Summit County’s enrollment rate for federal food aid remains dramatically low compared to state and national enrollment rates. That is money that could otherwise provide proper nutrition for Summit families, as well as help boost the local economy.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, is a federal program providing food-funding assistance to low-income families. Assistance is income-based, and eligibility is restricted to persons with an income level at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. For an individual, the eligible gross monthly income is $1,307 or less, while a family of four needs to earn $2,665 or less to qualify. SNAP can only be used to buy basic food stuffs, like grains, meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, but cannot be used to buy cigarettes, alcohol or other non-food items.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, the average SNAP beneficiary received about $125 in monthly food assistance last year. The USDA estimates over 42 million Americans benefited from the program in 2017 at a cost of $68 billion. The number of SNAP beneficiaries has dropped since the program reached its peak of 47 million in 2013 in the wake of the 2008 recession.

According to the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado, only 944 out of 4,631 eligible Summit residents signed up for SNAP benefits last year. That comes out to 20 percent enrollment in the county, compared to 58 percent across Colorado and 75 percent nationwide.

Ellie Agar, spokesperson for Hunger Free Colorado, said that low enrollment in SNAP hurts individuals as well as the community.

“There are a variety of impacts on the health of individuals as well local economic health,” Agar said. “Individually, a person risks poor nutrition, which could impact health long-term and lead to missed work days. When there isn’t full enrollment, the county is missing out on dollars that would be spent on local grocery stores and local economy. The money could also pass through to farmers and producers who are serving those stores.”

The group estimated that Summit lost out on almost $3.2 million in lost grocery revenue and $5.4 million in total economic stimulus due to low SNAP enrollment.

Joanne Sprouse, director of Summit County’s Division of Human Services, said that there were many reasons SNAP enrollment is low in Summit and other parts of ski country. One unique factor is the transient nature of ski towns.

“Lots of ski resort communities have low SNAP enrollment,” Sprouse said. “Some of it has to do with the transient nature of the community, with people who stay here for a short time and don’t bother applying for SNAP benefits.”

Sprouse said that the county has done its best to make it easier to enroll for benefits.

“We do really go out of the way to make the process easy,” Sprouse said. “We do walk-in appointments, and appointments can be made online. There is some paperwork and documentation that needs to be provided, and if applicants don’t have them available they have a certain amount of time to go and get anything they need.”

Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, said that other factors might discourage enrollment in Summit, including the stigma of receiving government benefits.

“There are families in our community who feel there’s a shame or stigma that comes from asking for food assistance in an affluent community, but they should not feel that way,” Drangstveit said. “We all need to eat, and it is expensive enough living here as it is without worrying about how to feed your family.”

She added that Summit’s immigrant community may be wary about applying for benefits.

“Undocumented immigrants in the community may also have a well-founded fear of interacting with government agencies, given the current administration’s stance on immigration,” she said.

Sprouse said that the county does not report immigration status when it enrolls SNAP beneficiaries, and has Spanish-language assistance available at human services for anyone who require it.

Michelle Webster, manager of research and policy analysis at the Colorado Center of Law and Policy, said she had noticed a low-enrollment trend in Colorado and eight other states that share a common method of distributing funds.

“Nine states, including Colorado, delegate enrollment and distribution of funds through their local city and county agencies,” Webster said. “Colorado has the second-lowest SNAP enrollment, and having widely differing SNAP distribution management across the state might be a significant reason for that low enrollment.”

County commissioner Dan Gibbs, who recently attended the Colorado County Supervisors conference at the White House, said that the issue of the feds relying on local management of national programs was a common grievance raised by local officials.

“There’s a trend where the federal government tells states to handle their programs,” Gibbs said, “and then the state tells local governments to handle it. But nobody offers the funds to help implement these programs.”

Webster said that while no single solution to low enrollment exists, several suggestions have been offered, such as increasing community outreach efforts through local nonprofits, making the application process less cumbersome, as well changing hours for county offices that handle assistance programs to accommodate work schedules.

“The key questions to ask is, how can we make SNAP more accessible, and how do we get eligible people to know about them and make it easier to enroll in them?”

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