Q&A: The typical Coloradan suffering from chronic hunger is a child and the ripple effects are costing everyone

 Kathy Underhill is the chief executive officer of Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to tackle the issue of hunger in Colorado at both the individual and systemic levels. Before that, she ran a food pantry, worked at the largest food bank in the state and worked on food policy for foundations, city government and nonprofits large and small. She also has been a recipient of assistance programs.

She and I spoke in mid-March about the Trump administration’s threat of cuts to the food stamp program and hunger in Colorado, where one in 10 people struggle with not having enough money to buy food.

TG: I want to start with the debate in Congress over food stamps and work requirements, essentially making it tougher to both receive and stay on food stamps. What’s your reaction and your concern?

KU: I’d actually start with the President’s budget, which is not in any way binding or legislative, but really is a wish list and sets the tone. It’s really concerning to us. It’s pretty drastic and, I would say, pretty mean-spirited … I think that some of the things the President put in his wish list budget are just completely absurd and we’ve already seen the backlash. Things like the America’s Harvest Box [a prepared food box in lieu of food stamps], those kind of things, I just can’t imagine them actually coming into being.

The problem is two things. One, it really sends a message from the highest level of our country about what we think of assistance programs and what we think of those that are food insecure and hungry. And, two, I think the other danger of it is when some policy starts so far left or so far right, it moves the center and that would be my other concern, that whatever is proposed next will seem reasonable in comparison to this completely crazy wish list of a budget.

The President’s budget sets the tone and the framework.


Let’s go back to something you said about how the President’s budget speaks about those who are food insecure. It seems to me that there is this denial among some percentage of the population and certainly among some members of Congress that somehow in the land of plenty, people are actually experiencing chronic hunger. People don’t seem to believe that. Do you think that is true and why?

One thing, if you go back and read the English Poor Laws of the 1600 and 1700s you realize how very little progress we have made in our thinking around assistance and how we treat people that are struggling. But overall, I do think that folks don’t understand who is hungry and the prevalence of hunger and that’s one of the biggest issues. We do statewide voter polling every three years, so we have a pretty good pulse on this and most Coloradans don’t think about hunger. If they do, they think about it as something happening in a faraway place in a developing nation.

If they think about it happening in Colorado, they think about the gentleman on the side of the street with the cardboard sign. The reality is you are most likely to live in a hungry household in Colorado if you are between the ages of zero and five. You are more likely if you are disabled or you are an older adult. So, it’s also even if people do think of hunger, it’s not based in the reality of what the data shows us. So, yes, I think many members of Congress and the general public really don’t understand the prevalence and the reality of it. In part because there’s so much stigma associated with being in poverty, struggling to meet your basic needs, being hungry, that there’s really very little space in the public discourse to discuss that lived experience.

So, when you say that our thinking hasn’t really advanced you mean in the way that there still is a tendency to talk about poverty as a moral failing?

Absolutely. And that it’s all about personal responsibility and self-determination. I’m a big believer in all of those things, but if we stop there and we don’t think about the structures that are in place, the structural issues, if you are placing the blame, and I am going to say “blame” very specifically, on the individual as a personal failing without looking at the system in which they are operating, you’re drawing completely wrong conclusions.

So, break that down for me. Let’s talk about those larger systems.

Well, we can talk about racism and who gets loans and financial policies. I mean, look at the data.  The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, for example, does a survey of high school students and they find that black high schoolers in Colorado are three times more likely to report experiencing hunger than their white counterparts. That’s not an accident, that’s not a coincidence. So, who owns homes in Colorado in the metro area? Who has access to wealth? Who has access to land, to building wealth, to saving money, to good-paying jobs? We can go down to school policy and education quality, I mean all these things play into how, when you are 18 and 19 and 25, what your earning power is. All of those things dictate that income.

When you mention the child zero to five, it makes me think that’s a child who is more likely to experience toxic stress, which has an impact on brain development. That’s a child more likely to attend a school that’s struggling in a neighborhood that has been isolated, and it builds and builds from there.

Absolutely, and I would say that a lot of that points to the inaccessibility of child care in Colorado. Let’s just do a hypothetical. Let’s say that we have a two-parent household, which is a big ‘if’ with current divorce rates. One parent is earning $12 an hour and let’s say you have one or two children under the age of four, which is pretty typical. Colorado has one of the highest child care costs in the country. My youngest is five. When she was in daycare, when she was in diapers and not walking, so below 2 and a half, she went to a childcare center in the metro area that was 30 percent CCAP [Colorado Child Care Assistance Program] kids, so 30 percent subsidized. This was not La Petit Chichi Academy. This is like a regular old nice daycare. It was $1,300 a month.


And I have three children. That’s for one child. People [who want to cut food stamps and are looking only at self-sufficiency] are thinking, ‘Well, that second parent should get a job.’ Let’s play that out. If I want the second parent to work, how much do they need to earn to make it so that they can work without actually losing money?  I can tell you when I had two young kids, I was running a food pantry and half of my paycheck went to childcare. Literally, I got paid twice a month and one of my paychecks went to childcare. The whole thing. And that was a salaried job. So, if I am going to go get a job at eight or nine or 10 dollars an hour — because we know even though the labor market is really tight in Denver, wages haven’t risen — I’m going to be losing money. The second job doesn’t solve my tight finances. I can’t work enough hours.

So, then people say, ‘Well, figure it out. Split shifts.’ So, OK, then I am going to work during the day and my partner is going to work at night and then our marriage falls apart because we never see each other. Do you know what I mean? So, people want to have real quick, simple answers about why people should be able to make it, but when you really start breaking it down, it gets incredibly complicated, and pretty dire, pretty quickly. And then some people might say, ‘Well, they shouldn’t have had kids in the first place.’ Well, you know, the horse has left the barn.

I know that two of three SNAP recipients are children, seniors, the disabled. Let’s talk about the other third. What is typical profile of that other third?

It could look like a couple of things. I think some of the hardest calls we get on our hotline [720-832-2920] are folks that are under 60, so let’s call it 55, 58 years old that are maybe getting Social Security Disability Insurance, or maybe they are just not technically disabled, but their body is just broken down from a lot of years of hard work. Think about the person who serves you coffee at the hash house. Think about the construction worker. Think about people who have made their living physically because a lot of jobs that are available are lower-wage jobs that require you to have stamina and physical ability. So, while you might not be technically disabled, you may not be able to be on your feet for eight hours. It’s those folks. It’s folks who might be working a full-time job, but they are still not making it. You know, in the example we just played out, the household of four, if one person is working a low-wage job, they are still eligible for food stamps and they are working families.

I guess the thing I want to stress is that people are working. They are not sitting around watching Jerry Springer and eating bon-bons and lobsters.

So, what percentage of SNAP recipients are we actually talking about who are the target of Congress and the administration here?

It’s a small percentage that are able-bodied adults without dependents. In Colorado, that could be someone who works in the tourism industry in the mountains. Right now, is a good example. We have horrible snow in the mountains, so little snow that some communities are opening up emergency feeding programs. If we don’t get enough snow and your hours are cut, you are able-bodied, but there are no jobs in town. So, again, does the local economy want that local person to leave town because there is no work for three months? In three months there will be work again.

That leads me to participation rates. According to the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, only about 60 percent of Coloradans eligible for food stamps are actually signed up, putting us near the bottom of all states in terms of participation. I looked at the rates against per capita income and see that the poorer counties have much higher participation rates than the wealthier counties.

What’s at play in a wealthier suburban county like Douglas County? Stigma?

I would say that there’s a couple of things. One, with all the gentrification in Denver and all the development, we’re seeing more and more people being pushed out of Denver. I couldn’t afford to live in Denver and I run a nonprofit and earn a good salary. So, where am I going to go live? Well, I might live along the light rail line. For example, maybe in Douglas County. Maybe in Lone Tree. I can rent an apartment cheaper in Lone Tree than I can in Denver. Westminster is cheaper than Denver. Thornton, cheaper than Denver. So, I think we really are seeing and have heard about it for many years, the suburbanization of poverty.

And so, part of it is that in the suburban communities because this has not been an issue … they are not set up to solve it. There isn’t a robust nonprofit structure. There isn’t an advocacy structure. I think nobody likes seeing their rate of low-income people go up. If you have a school that is a suburban school, do you want to see your free and reduced lunch rates go up? Probably not. And are you going to want to see your food stamp participation go up? Probably not. And so are you going to do the things that encourage people to apply for benefits?

Probably not?

Probably not. I mean, it really depends on the county commissioners and the administration.

Overall, why are our participation rates as a state so low compared to everyone else?

I would say historically it has never been an administrative priority for the state. So, for the governor, for the head of human services, we’ve never really had someone come out and say, ‘This is really important to us.’ That’s never really happened in Colorado. But now, the Colorado Department of Human Service has adopted food stamp access as one of their wildly important goals and that’s wonderful. This is the first time in my memory.

It strikes me then that the debate happening at the national level over food stamps represents a move backward at a time when Colorado needs to move forward.

Correct. And we actually have some interest and momentum to move forward. There couldn’t be a worse, well, I don’t want to say a worse time because there is probably always a worse time, but the timing is very, very poor.

Who, besides SNAP participants, would be affected by cuts? I’m thinking about farmers and grocers. Who else?

The whole supply chain of food. That’s truckers, that’s fuel, that’s people who manufacture trucks, that’s people who do maintenance on trucks, refrigeration, any of the equipment that goes along with that. Farmers, producers, people that clean the grocery stores. It’s really the whole supply chain.

And then beyond that, I would say I mean, hunger is one of those things that I call an everything issue. Everything that you actually care about, hunger is probably tied to it. So, if we care about education in Colorado, hungry kids are not going to be great learners. If we care about being the healthiest state or cost-containment of health care, hungry people are not the healthiest people and people that are eating low-cost food are not the healthiest people. If you’re diabetic, heck, if you’re that little kid, I mean zero to two to three years old it’s the most nutritionally vulnerable time as a human, outside of your mother’s body, so what we’re talking about is you can have iron deficiency anemia relatively easily if you are malnourished or undernourished, and that’s when you are laying down mylin in your brain. So, you’re talking about lost IQ points that you can never get back no matter what the intervention is.

So, if you care about economic stability, do you think hungry workers are great workers? I would say skip lunch and dinner tonight and see how you do. When you are hungry, that is all you think about. It’s really hard to focus on anything else. As a mom, if I don’t know what I am going to feed my kids tonight, I am not present. I might be physically be at work, but I am sure not mentally or emotionally present.

In the presence of hunger, not a lot else matters.

Thank you. Is there anything else you want to emphasize?  

It’s one of those things that can feel hopeless, so people can read and say, ‘oh, systemic issues.’’ Or they might think, ‘I donated to my food pantry, I’m done. I‘m part of the solution.’ I would say, not so fast. Keep doing what you are doing, but this really is a policy problem … And so, you know when people talk about fraud, waste and abuse, I would say, you have to be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line [$26,556 for a family of three] to receive a dollar and forty cents per person per meal. So, when we talk about cuts, is that income too high to receive benefits? Is that amount per meal too high? Where do people think that we can cut from this program? We really need people to be active. We’ve got elections coming up. Are people asking the candidates and their elected officials where they stand on these programs?

All the food pantries in the world cannot make up for cuts to the food stamp program. Charity cannot bear the weight of this. Period. End of story

Photos courtesy of Hunger Free Colorado. The Colorado Independent’s coverage of health equity issues is underwritten by LiveWell Colorado. In accordance with the Independent’s editorial independence policy, underwriters have no control over story selection or content.

Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.


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