1 in 3 struggling to eat in Colorado: “It would be impossible without the food banks”

The loaf of bread Yvonne Dollison buys for her family from the grocery store used to cost 88 cents.

After the coronavirus hit and people began stocking up on food and supplies in Denver, it jumped to $1.05.

Every penny counts for Dollison, who must feed herself, her husband and her two grandchildren who live with her.

“I don’t have the money to get what I normally would get,” she said.

The 58-year-old paraprofessional for Denver Public Schools finds herself, like many Coloradans, struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic that has led to soaring unemployment rates and reduced her workload. A survey commissioned by advocacy group Hunger Free Colorado released in late July found that 1 in 3 Coloradans are struggling to afford food, with 40% of households seeing a drop in income.

Black and Latino families are hit the hardest, according to other national and state data. Applications for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits — formerly known as food stamps — in April were up nearly 47% year over year, according to state data. Food banks and other community organizations are giving out double the amount of food they distributed before the pandemic began.

Typically, Dollison works for various educational programs during the summers to pay her bills, but many have been shut down. So, she’s had to get creative. She signed up as a dog walker. She sells vegetables from her garden.

Her husband, who is recovering from major surgery, isn’t able to work. They don’t use government assistance for food, but a friend recently suggested a food pantry as an option. Thursday, Dollison went for the second time since the pandemic started.

As more Coloradans are having to make choices about paying bills and feeding their families, food banks and their partners have stepped up food distribution through mobile pantries. Federal and state agencies have provided additional assistance.

Advocates are calling for a 15% increase in SNAP benefits in the coronavirus relief legislation Congress is currently debating, as well as an extension of pandemic EBT, which provides money to states to ensure families who qualify get their children’s meals at home even when schools are closed.

“The results of the survey were shocking, even having seen the numbers from people going into food pantries and the lines,” said Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado. “More than three times the number of folks are food insecure than the last Great Recession.”

Hunger Free Colorado’s hotline is receiving two to four times the daily calls it averaged before the pandemic. Individuals can call the hotline for help filling out their SNAP applications or to get referrals for food assistance programs.

The federal government has helped states meet some of the increased need by allowing more people to qualify for extended benefits, as well as expanding access. In Colorado, that has included increasing the number of retailers that can accept SNAP online, though they’re still limited, and temporarily suspending certain restrictions. Colorado has also made changes to speed up the process and launched an online program to ensure households eligible for schools’ free and reduced lunches can still get them through the federal pandemic EBT.

Meighen Lovelace, an Avon resident and single mom of two, including a child with a disability, has used the state program, particularly as her work and child care situation has gotten more difficult amid the pandemic. She encouraged other families that can’t afford food to take advantage of the assistance.

“As a child, I experienced hunger in my household, and it was shameful somehow to even tell someone you were hungry, and there was this secret that my family carried around,” she said. “And I don’t think hunger needs to be your secret.”

Since the pandemic started, between 30% and 40% of Coloradans getting food from food banks and mobile pantries are first-time users, said Erin Pulling, CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies. The organization, which serves the Denver metro area, Western Slope and Eastern Plains, has increased distribution to nearly 300,000 meals a day. The nonprofit had to hire additional staff as well as purchase more food storage space. Its budget is $1 million more a month than it was pre-COVID-19 — a level agency officials don’t think they can sustain for a whole year.

Pitkin County, with the highest unemployment in the state, has seen the largest need, especially with no regular food pantries open outside of the mobile distributions.

At first, the community support was “very rapid and very generous,” Pulling said. But it’s beginning to slow down despite the continued need. Food Bank of the Rockies, like other food banks, is asking for monetary donations rather than goods because cash can be used more efficiently and it cuts down on sanitization issues.

Food banks alone cannot fill the increased needs during the pandemic, she said — Colorado needs additional federal support for state programs, particularly SNAP. Much of the federal support provided to food banks is slated to end later this year. Of Colorado’s CARES ACT dollars, $500,000 went toward food pantry programs.

The USDA’s Farmers to Families Program has also provided food banks and pantries with 4.4 million pounds of fresh produce, meat and dairy distributed to Coloradans each month, but it has an October end date. It would cost $2.2 million per month or $17.6 million over the next eight months to buy that food, Pulling said. For Colorado-sourced products, the eight-month cost would be more than $26 million.

Food banks have also relied on The Emergency Food Assistance Program that provides, through the USDA, products to low-income families, which is expected to end in 2020. To replace this program, agencies would have to spend $1.4 million per month.

On Thursday morning, Dollison joined the long line of cars in the Montbello High School parking lot waiting to be called up for food pickup from the mobile pantry. Her 9- and 10-year-old grandsons were with her.

As a Black woman, she knows she faces additional challenges as a result of deep-rooted inequities.

“I’m starting in the middle,” she said. “Everyone else is starting at the top.”

A survey released in April by Healthier Colorado and the Colorado Health Foundation found a larger proportion of minorities had concerns about paying for food during the pandemic: More than 44% of people who identified as Hispanic or Latinx were worried and 36% who identified as Black or African American were worried, compared with 29% who identified as white.

Dollison said she has worked hard to succeed without relying on others much. But she recognizes that times are tougher.

On Thursday, she was able to leave the mobile pantry with food for her family and even a neighbor. She reflected on how grateful she was, urging others not to give up.

“It would be impossible without the food banks,” Dollison said. “Not more difficult. Impossible.”

To get help:

  • Colorado’s SNAP program: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdhs/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap
  • Where to apply for benefits: https://coloradopeak.secure.force.com/
  • Pandemic EBT benefits for families that get free and reduced lunch: https://www.cde.state.co.us/nutrition/schoolmealeligibility
  • Find a mobile food pantry: https://www.foodbankrockies.org/find-food/
  • Get meals delivered for eligible seniors: https://www.voacolorado.org/gethelp-denvermetro-foodnutrition-mow
  • Pick up food or get meals delivered: Struggle of Love Foundation at Academy 360, 720-240-7200.

To donate or volunteer:

  • The Food Bank of the Rockies: https://www.foodbankrockies.org
  • Find your local food bank: https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank
  • Denver Metro Emergency Food Network: https://www.denverdelivered.com/
  • Meals on Wheels: https://www.voacolorado.org/gethelp-denvermetro-foodnutrition-mow
  • The Salvation Army Intermountain Division: https://westernusa.salvationarmy.org/intermountain_us_west/

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