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Local food stamp program update 

Last week, President Obama signed a $956 billion farm bill containing $8.5 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next decade. At the same time, the local need for food assistance continued to grow.

In January, El Paso County had a record 32,729 cases, or 72,224 clients, in the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. That brings the local cost for the federally funded program to over $9.1 million a month, says Arturo Serrano, El Paso County Food Assistance manager. By comparison, the program had 61,002 clients in January 2011.

At the same time, an average El Paso County household of four receiving SNAP benefits got $558 worth of assistance in December 2011; in December 2013, it received $506.

Serrano says it's unlikely that the new farm bill will further cut into that stipend.

That's because those cutbacks are aimed at states that automatically qualify people for food stamps if they qualify for utilities assistance, something Colorado doesn't do.

Things could have been worse for struggling locals if political winds had shifted farther to the right. Arguments over the farm bill have persisted for four years, with some Republicans calling for cuts to the food stamp program of $40 billion over 10 years.

The farm bill isn't all bad news for the poor; it also includes additional funding for emergency food supplies. In southern Colorado, any additional money would flow to Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, the major supplier of emergency food to charity pantries and kitchens in the lower half of the state.

Care and Share Executive Director Lynne Telford says it's not clear how much additional funding her organization will receive, but across the nation the farm bill calls for $250 million in additional food over the next decade. She says there's also a provision that could provide more dairy foods to the food bank. That funding could be critical because while Care and Share fed about 104,000 hungry people last year, its mother nonprofit, Feeding America, estimates there are about 165,000 hungry people in southern Colorado.

"We keep increasing what we're doing," Telford says, "and so we're going to get to the point where everybody has access."

Last year, Care and Share handed out 18.6 million pounds of food, the most in its history. Telford says that in order to continue to step up its output, she hopes to hire a few more staff members and buy more equipment in the coming years. Donations have been increasing, but the nonprofit will need more if it's to bridge the hunger gap.

Care and Share accepts donations at careandshare.org.

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