A few years ago, it may have been unthinkable to many: Someone you know, someone you're close to, needing food stamps.
Now you can bet that it's a reality. More than 1 in 10 people in El Paso County — 10.5 percent of the population — was on food assistance in December, at a cost of $9,145,102. It marked an all-time high for the El Paso County Department of Human Services' Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps): 65,556 clients. In December 2008, that number stood at just 41,897.
Growing need isn't just affecting well-known government programs. The local food bank and neighborhood food pantries are also feeling the strain.
"The government tells us that the economy and the recession is over," says Carey Adams, owner of the nonprofit God's Pantry Ministry in Fountain. "But these people are begging for jobs, and they'll do anything."
The need, coupled with holiday hours and laborious information-entry requirements, led to a county backlog this holiday season. Some families going through routine food-stamp renewals, typically a quick process, had to wait up to five days to receive their grocery money, even as all the pressure of the holidays bore down.
It's not the first time this sort of thing has happened. County spokesperson Jennifer Brown says that while the county has avoided creating a waiting list, it has had a difficult time keeping up. In 2007, a county case worker juggled about 1,480 Medicaid and food stamp cases; in 2011, that same case worker handled 100 additional cases.
"There's been a month here and there that we might go down a little bit," Brown says of food stamp participation, "but it's been a pretty steady increase [since the start of the recession]."
Food stamps aren't the only place the county is seeing the surge. In an average month in 2008, 1,522 residents received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (commonly known as welfare). Early numbers indicate that in 2011, that number was 1,971.
In August 2010, the county changed the requirements for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which helps working parents afford child care. To get on the program, parents now have to live at or below 140 percent of the federal poverty line, compared to 185 percent previously. They also have to show they're actively seeking any child support owed to them.
"The main reason for dropping the level for assistance," Brown explains, "is so we wouldn't have to go on wait lists."
In all, the Department of Human Services saw demand for its assistance programs increase 13.9 percent in 2010. Early numbers show an additional 7.09 percent increase in 2011.
The nonprofit squeeze
Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado is the major provider of free food locally. It collects and buys food, then distributes it to the dozens of neighborhood food pantries and soup kitchens. So if Care and Share isn't faring well, your hungry neighbor isn't, either.
Luckily, the bank has basically kept its head above water during the recession. But Care and Share's Melissa Marts says pantries are "always asking for more food," and this year only 70 percent of Thanksgiving turkey requests were filled. And while local generosity hasn't disappeared, its begun to wane.
The bank's annual Harvest of Love drive was less successful this year than in 2010. The huge drive, which involves school kids bringing food and monetary donations to school, collected 108,513 pounds of food and $133,775 in 2010. In 2011, the same drive brought in 107,517 pounds and $112,907. But Marts is cautiously upbeat.
"Overall, I feel like the community is still giving; they're still being responsive," Marts says.
At God's Pantry, Adams feels similarly, saying she was touched by how concerned the public was with the pantry's welfare, and by how many people stopped by with donations of food, clothing, furniture and household items. She accepts donations at 102 N. Main St. in Fountain daily, and will even pick up bigger items. When a particular item runs low, Adams lets the community know by posting it on a sign outside the pantry. The donations flow in.
Still, Adams says she's concerned about the growing need. About 8,000 people are registered to pick up food and clothing at her pantry, which she runs with some hard-working volunteers. These days, she says, "We're busy all day long."
That need also shows up in some of the specialized programs that Care and Share administers, like its Send Hunger Packing program. That program sends school kids home with a backpack full of food each week to help feed their families. Care and Share has 25 schools and sites — 13 in El Paso County — where kids can sign up for the program. Each site serves at least 20 hungry kids who were previously missing meals.
Right now, 17 more sites are on a waiting list to get the program, with 15 of them in El Paso County. Says Care and Share's Jennifer Mariano: "There are so many kids now that teachers and counselors are identifying that are going without meals on a regular basis."