Food stamps not enough?
Only local certainty: Hunger persistent

       This story presents a question without a certain answer.
       When people earning up to 130 percent of poverty level ($2,389 a month for a family of four) can qualify for food stamps, why has Care & Share, a separate regional food pantry, needed to double its disbursements in the past five years?
       It's a story with nationwide implications. Feeding America, a national food bank which the Care & Share website describes as its “major source of food,” released a study in January stating that nearly 80 percent of a nationwide cross-section feel a sense of “low” or “very low” food security even when they're receiving food stamps. The study revealed almost identical “security” percentages for people who were eligible for but not receiving food stamps.
       No study of this type has been done locally, so the Westside Pioneer's research consisted of talking to Care & Share, the heads of three Westside pantries that work with Care & Share and two administrators involved in the food stamp program.
       (Note: Although still popularly called “food stamps,” the federal program's name has formally changed in recent years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and in Colorado it's called the “food assistance program,” according to Diane Reliford, El Paso County's eligibility supervisor. Actual stamps aren't used anymore. Recipients pay for food with a debit card, “so now that stigma isn't there,” Reliford pointed out.)
       Stigma or not, some people don't apply for SNAP at all because there is a perception that food stamps are a bureaucratic hassle (including an application form that can go on for 24 pages), according to Steve Brown and Phillip Young, who head up the food pantries for Westside CARES and the Billie Spielman Center, respectively. A food-stamp computer snafu three years ago, in which some applicants lost personal paperwork, also lessened confidence in the program, Young said.
       Such criticism was countered by Reliford and Arturo Serrano (who manages the county's food assistance and family medicaid programs). Both said the application system has been simplifed. People with no income need only to fill out one or two pages, with processing occurring within 7 days (compared to the normal 30). In addition, Serrano said, the time required for applicants in the office has been streamlined. “It's not like people are waiting for hours,” he said. “It takes maybe an hour, even 20 minutes, depending on the day.” He conceded, however, that “it can take awhile” to fill out the whole form, which is actually a “universal application for multiple social programs” that are available through the county. “We're looking at it, to see if there's a way we can shorten it”
       Even homeless people can receive SNAP benefits because a permanent address is not required, Reliford said.
       Still, it is true that SNAP reviewers take into consideration applicants' income, savings and possessions, and there is also a recertification element to ensure that people don't keep getting food benefits if their situation improves. A separate category addresses “A-bods” (a shortcut name for able bodied individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no dependents). A-bods have to fulfill a work requirement in getting food assistance, Reliford explained. “They have to register with our program, Employment First, they have to go to classes and orientation and do a number of things. Sometimes people don't comply with that program, and so they don't have benefits.”
       But even if some don't apply or don't qualify, the number of county SNAP recipients has still “gone up drastically,” according to Serrano. He provided a couple of statistical points:
       SNAP households, which totaled 14,000 two years ago, “are now pushing 24,000.”
       A total of 55,000 individual clients are getting food assistance in El Paso County, which has a total population of about 600,000.
       In El Paso County, SNAP “is our most far-reaching program,” Serrano said. “We issue $7.8 million a month in federal dollars for food assistance.”
       The current poverty-level income cutoff for a family of four, which is set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is $22,050 a year. So 130 percent of that is just under $29,000 a year.
       In contrast to SNAP, people can get assistance from emergency food pantries immediately, sometimes without questions asked. “We do not dictate what information they [the pantries] ask for,” said Care & Share spokesperson Lisa Amend.
       That source of food has also improved in quality in recent times, thanks to Care & Share last year moving into a 50,000-square-foot warehouse off Constitution Avenue and Powers Boulevard that includes large freezer and refrigeration capabilities that previously weren't available, according to Brown.
       But the drawback is that Care & Share supplies are dependent on donations, and after Christmas they tend to drop off. For example, Brown said, “Our supply of non-perishable food has depleted. Care & Share cut us back by a third this month.”
       He and Young shared concerns about the summer months. That's when donations also tend to be low but needy families expend more on food because of school being out and their kids not getting free or reduced lunches or breakfasts five days a week.
       (As a side note on that, about 50 percent of the students in District 11 are now on free and reduced lunches. A decade ago it was only about 30 percent. The income cutoff is up to 180 percent of poverty level.)
       More than 30 pantries in the county are approved to buy food from Care & Share, taking advantage of its large discounts. To become approved, an entity must fill out an application of its own, telling Care & Share the scope of its operation. “We ask pretty non-specific questions but have to ensure that the agencies getting our food have the ability to meet demand,” Amend said. “From what I have been told, there didn't used to be an application process to receive our food and since there were no 'guidelines' (for lack of a better word) in place, the agencies getting the food weren't always properly set up to distribute emergency food - for instance, they may not have had set hours when people KNEW there would always be someone there to help them and they may not have had volunteers to ensure that the facilities were always appropriately staffed. They also may not have been able to adequately store the distributed food.”
       A third Care & Share pantry on the Westside (in addition to Westside CARES and Billie Spielman) is the nonprofit Silver Key Senior Services, although its distribution is limited to ages 60 and over.
       All three of these pantries report major increases in demand, especially starting in fall 2008.
       Silver Key requires an application form for long-term assistance, but will give food one time from its pantry to hungry elderly folks without needing a form filled out, according to Paul Koch, the agency's resource development director. After that, the idea is to work with applicants on a long-term assistance plan that would take into account their medical and nutritional needs.
       As for seniors applying for food stamps, Koch said that typically those living off Social Security aren't going to qualify for more than $15 to $20 a month in food assistance, which may discourage some from applying.
       At Westside CARES and at Billie Spielman, people can also get emergency help on the spot, but names are taken and records are kept. Both have an established limit of three times a year for the same household, according to Brown and Young.
       Churches, foundations and other nonprofits also provide emergency food assistance in Colorado Springs, though not necessarily through Care & Share.
       As for people out on the streets just looking for a free meal, Matt Parkhouse, a registered nurse who has helped for years in programs to move homeless people into better situations, cited a local transient's recent quote: “If you go hungry in this town, you are stupid.” More specifically, regarding free meals, Parkhouse said, “There's always lunch and dinner, but you have to move around a little. Breakfast can be covered by 'takeaways' from the soup kitchen” (at the Marian House downtown).
       Another seemingly unanswerable question in the hunger conondrum is to what extent the Feeding America study - namely, the part in which 80 percent of surveyed recipients claimed their SNAP benefits were inadequate - is accurate locally.
       A counterpoint to that finding is that SNAP has recently become more generous. For example, the largest SNAP allotment for a single benificiary used to be $174 a month (based on a federal formula of how much people normally spend on food). But with a boost from federal stimulus funds last October, this maximum is now $200, Reliford said.
       A family of four with no income can now receive $668 a month in food assistance in El Paso County, she said.
       Looking at that figure, Young commented that while the amount may sound reasonable, “I know the food stamp formula. It's based on a pretty frugal budget, that you can cook from scratch and you're a great shopper. But there are a lot of people who aren't that way, and it's not going to be enough for them.”
       Brown raised another point, which is that many people on food stamps only get partial benefits - for example, $150, if that family of four has some income. The idea in such a case is that the family could use its income to cover the balance of the food bills. But that money might have to be reprioritized to pay off, say, credit card debts or child support - and the ultimate result could be that family seeking help at a food pantry, Brown said. This is an example, he suggested of how, “even in welfare reform, people still are penalized for making more money. It may be some kind of unexpected, unintended consequence.”
       Care & Share was started more than 35 years ago by Franciscan Sister Dominique Pisciotta “as a referral agency to coordinate food distribution,” the agency's website states. This year, the agency expects to distribute 19 million pounds of food, which is more than double its total five years ago.
       Whatever the reasons might be for this demand, there is one certainty, which is that ever-increasing numbers of hungry people are looking for ever-growing amounts of free food, in the nation, in the state, in the county and on the Westside.

Related resources
  • SNAP, 17 N. Spruce St. (636-000).
  • Billie Spielman Center, 1616 W. Bijou St. (385-7930).
  • Westside CARES, 1930 W. Colorado Ave. (389-0759)
  • Silver Key Senior Services, 2250 Bott Ave. (884-2370).
  • Care & Share, 2605 Preamble Point (528-1247).

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