Colorado slogging behind nation on food stamps

DENVER – People are at their best when they have enough to eat, but one in seven Coloradans still doesn’t know when or where to get a next meal.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, was created to help struggling families buy groceries.

But according to a new report, Colorado ranks 46th in the nation for SNAP access, and only half of residents who qualify get assistance.

Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, the group behind the study, says the state’s poor performance takes a big bite out of local economies.

“Because of our relatively low participation in the program, we lose about $686 million every year that are federal funds that would be spent every month in grocery stores in every corner of our state,” she points out.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found every $5 in SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 worth of economic activity.

The program provides eligible families with what’s essentially a monthly pre-loaded debit card that can only be used to buy food – $1.40 per person, per meal on average.

Underhill says the majority of people who qualify are children, seniors, working adults, veterans and people with disabilities.

The study shows Colorado’s county-based system is grossly inconsistent when it comes to performance. Some counties enroll 83 percent of eligible families in SNAP, compared with just 10 percent in other counties. The national average for enrollment is 75 percent.

Underhill says more than economics are at stake, and Colorado needs to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not.

“You’re most likely to live in a hungry household in Colorado if you’re between the ages of zero and five,” she said. “That’s the same age that you’re laying down myelin in your brain. And if you’re undernourished and you have iron deficiency anemia, you’re talking about lost IQ points that you can never get back. “

The state agency that supervises SNAP has repeatedly come under fire from the USDA for poor performance, and the state was forced to pay a $1 million settlement in June.

Underhill says she hopes the new data will help the state and counties prioritize food access, to avoid future fines, but also to make sure no Coloradans go hungry.

This story originally appeared on Colorado News Connection

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons, Flickr