Food Bank of the Rockies CEO: “The level of need that we are seeing right now is really higher than we’ve ever seen before”

The end of pandemic-era benefits and lingering inflation has created a “perfect storm” when it comes to food insecurity.
6 min. read
Jewish Family Services’ food pantry, Nov. 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Since the start of the pandemic, Tommy Curry was getting around $200 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps. But since March, that figure dropped to around $23 in assistance per month.

"They take what little they're giving you and they cut it, it affects me in a way that I get less," Curry said. "I'm already struggling, I'm homeless, and they're never gonna give you enough to survive."

Curry supplements his dietary needs with hot meals at places like nonprofit Senior Support Services and at food banks across the city. He is grateful for SNAP and nonprofit support, but he said food supply and options are limited. Sometimes, he will eat rice 15 times per week.

"Rice to me isn't isn't healthy," he said. "It's got a lot of starch, it'll fill you up that long, and then you're hungry again. And so healthy eating, that's out the window. And protein, you can forget that, especially meat and stuff because that's very, very expensive."

Like more than 40 million Americans across the country, Curry is feeling the fallout from the end of a pandemic-era benefits expansion program that allowed anyone who qualified for SNAP to receive the highest possible amount of benefits based on income, household size and a number of other factors. But Congress let that expansion expire, and benefits dropped for SNAP recipients in March. Staff at hunger and food access nonprofits warned of a "hunger cliff."

Tommy Curry hangs out inside North Capitol Hill's Senior Support Services building around lunchtime. July 6, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Now, that "hunger cliff" has come.

"I've been here at Food Bank of the Rockies for four and a half years, I've worked in the fields of food and nutrition and food insecurity for almost 30 years, and the level of need that we are seeing right now is really higher than we've ever seen before," said Food Bank of the Rockies CEO Erin Pulling.

Pulling called the current situation a "perfect storm." While demand was high during the peak of the pandemic, federal and state governments mobilized a number of programs, like the added SNAP benefits, to support people experiencing food insecurity. Now, those programs have gone away. State officials estimate that the average family of four lost about $325 per month since the end of the SNAP expansion.

The loss in benefits is occurring at a time when inflation remains high, particularly for food. To make matters worse, Food Bank of the Rockies receives a portion of its food from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). During the pandemic, the organization got about 50% of its food from the USDA, but now that figure has dropped to around 13%, due to low food availability across the country. And since food is more expensive, the money food banks have to purchase food does not go as far. Pulling said Food Bank of the Rockies is spending $1.5 million per month on food, triple what the nonprofit spent before the pandemic.

"As consumers all of us have seen in recent months increases when we go to the grocery store, every food item seems to cost more than it used to," Pulling said. "As you can imagine, that hits Food Bank of the Rockies especially hard."

Around 77% of SNAP recipients in Colorado are people with disabilities, elderly people with fixed incomes or working families, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. Pulling said she spoke with a mother whose husband works full time and has cut corners recently, but still cannot make ends meet.

Brandon Quintana saw his SNAP benefits drop from around $200 per month to $106 per month. He said he has to dip into supplemental income benefits from the Social Security Administration, making it hard for him to cover other needs like gas, car insurance and phone bills.

"It's kind of hard because you can't really buy that much to keep myself fed," he said. "There's nothing else, I don't know what else to do."

Randy Quintana hangs out inside North Capitol Hill's Senior Support Services building around lunchtime. July 6, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As other pandemic-era benefits programs end, the problem could get worse.

Typically, able-bodied adults without dependents can only be on SNAP for three months within a three-year span while not looking for a job or attending school or a training program. The U.S. government suspended that time limit during the pandemic, but starting in July, the limit is back in play. Plus, the federal debt ceiling negotiations increased the age limit for job requirements from 49 years old to 54 years old.

Another pandemic-era change expanded the availability of SNAP benefits for students enrolled in higher education. That benefit ended in June.

"We will probably not see that start to impact people in terms of them losing any of their benefits for another two and a half months," said Karla Maraccini, Division Director for Food and Energy Assistance with the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Maraccini said she has seen similar levels of need before during the 2008 recession. But she said the current moment is particularly difficult given recent inflation.

"People. for instance, who maybe go on to SNAP for a little while to get their feet back on the ground and to try to get through some of these economic crises and then eventually let it drop off or don't renew, because they don't need it as much anymore, we're seeing that people need it for longer because inflation is just so out of control," she said.

In response, Maraccini wants to see Congress increase the minimum SNAP benefit.

It's something the government evaluates every few years. But with high inflation, she thinks the U.S. should review the minimum annually in response to fluctuations in the economy.

Pulling also wants to see an increase in SNAP funding from the federal government. On the state side, Colorado legislators passed a bill giving an extra $14 million to hunger relief organizations to help with the drop off in SNAP benefits.

But Pulling said need remains high. Food Bank of the Rockies has put calls out to community members for support, especially through monetary donations and volunteer help with distribution.

"Sometimes people think maybe it's the most efficient thing for them to pick up a couple extra jars of peanut butter at the store and donate them," she said. "It's actually not, because we're buying food by the truckload. We buy 15 truckloads of food every week. So we can purchase food for pennies on the dollar from what you and I can buy at the grocery store."

And for people in need, Pulling said Food Bank of the Rockies runs about 70 mobile pantries per month across the entire state, along with a number of other nonprofits.

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