Need for feed

In slow economy, food assistance on the rise

Graphs courtesy of the Boulder County HHS

Food assistance in Boulder County has increased rapidly in the past five years. Since April 2007, clients of the Boulder County Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have jumped from 8,848 to 21,250 as of April 2013, a 240 percent increase.

Just about every conceivable demographic group has seen an increase in food assistance recipients, according to data compiled by the Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services. A few minority groups are fast risers in the numbers, like unmarried couples, which jumped by a factor of four but still account for only 1.5 percent of applicants, and households outside Boulder County, which increased tenfold to account for 10.6 percent of applications in April 2013.

The largest groups also saw increases, as recipients in Longmont, adults between 20 and 65, seniors over 66 and single people all more than doubled.

A portion of the increase can likely be attributed to a change in the government’s attitude toward single applicants. Brian Cadena, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado, says SNAP is intended to aid families, but has recently been applied to an increasing number of single-person households.

“It typically targets families. It’s a household-level benefit,” says Cadena. “But since the recession, the federal agency in charge of food stamps has waived that requirement because it has been so hard to find work lately.”

As of April 2013, the typical Boulder County recipient is a single adult living in Longmont getting $159 a month, based on the federal average.

An estimated 7 percent of the county receives food assistance. An estimated 10 percent of Longmont, 6 percent of the city of Boulder and 5 percent of Lafayette, Louisville and Superior, taken together, receive the benefits.

The amount of assistance has risen right with demand, increasing from $11.1 million in 2008 to $27.6 million in 2012, a 249 percent increase, according to data provided by Boulder County HHS spokesman Jim Williams.

“The figures are primarily federal dollars that flow to Boulder County to provide benefits for clients who enroll for food assistance here,” Williams says.

The Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services serves families outside Boulder County, Williams says, in instances where recipients are moving into or out of the county.

The rise in food assistance is a trend that more or less mirrors unemployment in the county, which hit a five-year low in early 2007 at under 3 percent, then more than doubled by late 2012, according to a housing and human services chart.

Recent news stories have noted there are high unemployment rates among new college graduates, but there’s little in Boulder County’s statistics that can be attributed to that particular trend. Single recipients and the “Adult” group, which spans 20 to 65, haven’t risen faster than other groups. Unemployment for recent graduates nationwide remains high at 53.6 percent, according the U.S. Department of Labor and Census Bureau.

Adults between 18 and 35 years old account for approximately 22.8 percent of persons receiving food assistance nationwide, according to the Census Bureau. In Boulder County, adults 20 to 65 are slightly less than half the recipients, but that age group isn’t broken down further.

Persons receiving aid in Colorado must also participate in the Employment First Program, according the state of Colorado’s official website.

The Employment First Program is a federally mandated program designed to ensure that all able-bodied food assistance participants are engaged in activities that will improve their employability, according the website.

Cadena says the purpose of SNAP isn’t just to help the homeless, it’s to provide assistance to the working poor.

“It’s been for people who are working, so it’s for the working poor or at least for those who are looking for work,” says Cadena. “And the unemployment rate is falling disproportionately on people who have been unemployed for a long time or have little work experience.”

One Boulderite who receives food assistance is already working, but his job doesn’t pay enough to eat right, he says. Theodore “Taj” Matuszak is a 33-year-old barista and artist who lives in a studio apartment on University Hill and says he tries to live simply. He works a minimum-wage job at Espresso Roma, where hours available to work are tight for all employees.

Matuszak applied for food stamps in April and qualified for the maximum, $200 a month. He says he makes it a goal to eat healthy food.

“I have the right to good food just like anybody else does,” Matuszak says. “It helps me to subsidize organic and healthful food instead of eating GMO crap.”

In order to qualify for food assistance in Boulder County, the household income for one person cannot exceed $1,211 per month, and a family of four cannot make more than $2,498. Single people can receive between $16 and $200 per month, and a family of four up to $668 per month.

Dale Kamibayashi, store director for Alfalfa’s in Boulder, says purchases made with food stamp cards account for 4 percent to 5 percent of the store’s daily transactions.

“Even people on food assistance want to buy healthy products and they budget appropriately,” Kamibayashi says. “They buy a lot of bulk food and see how far they can stretch and extend their dollar by buying these commodity items.”

Cadena says the increased demand for and increased spending on food assistance is no surprise, given the slow growth of the economy.

“Government spending is supposed to be counter-cyclical — food stamps are considered an automatic stabilizer in standard macro-economics,” says Cadena. “Getting money to people who will spend it immediately is always the goal in any stimulus program.”

The need for assistance could be even bigger than the increase in demand reported by HHS indicates. HHS stats illustrate a particular issue in Boulder County: Perhaps due to high costs in other areas of life, people in Boulder County can be “food insecure” even when they’re making more than the federal poverty level. Food insecurity means a household lacks the budget to have a nutritious diet, HHS says. Data from HHS says 44 percent of the 38,920 food-insecure people in the county are above the federal poverty line, so they aren’t eligible for food assistance.

Erica Lindberg contributed to the reporting of this story. She worked at Espresso Roma with Taj Matuszak.