Updated: November 4, 2013 at 8:52 am
On Friday, the federal food stamp program was cut by more than $5 billion per year because the 2009 economic stimulus increase ran out.
The program provides about $80 billion a year in aid to about 47 million people, or 14 percent of U.S. households, including about a half million people in Colorado.
When Jessica O'Neil of Fountain heard the news, she broke into tears.
The $20 she will lose each month might not sound like much to some people - maybe a few lattes or a new blouse or some movie tickets.
But for those barely getting by - the elderly on fixed incomes, children in impoverished families, single mothers, the working poor - it can mean the difference between a modest meal or going hungry.
"I worry that I might not have enough for my son," O'Neil said. "I just can't imagine what families with more children will do."
Meals have revolved around macaroni and cheese, hamburger casseroles and ramen. With no car, she only occasionally can get a ride to a food pantry.
"Food has gone up," she said. "A dozen eggs are $2 and something, and he can eat three eggs at a time."
She wants to ensure her son has the best nutrition because he had a serious illness awhile back. Now he is playing sports at school, and like most teen boys he's always hungry despite the free breakfast and lunch he gets under a federal school lunch program.
O'Neil had a heart attack recently and does not work. She and her son are staying with an elderly relative.
Congress raised funding for food stamps in 2009 as part of the stimulus program, but that has run out. Recipients who have no income will lose from $11 to $65 or more a month, depending on their circumstances, including number of dependents. A typical family of two will get about $347 a month, a $20 drop.
And the cutting might not be over.
The new federal farm bill, which funds the program, is making its way through Congress. One version chops $4 billion and the other as much as $22 billion, by some estimates.
"This is huge. People are struggling to put food on the table anyway. This will impact their ability to buy enough food for the month," said Sue McGinn, director of Food and Energy Assistance for the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Families will be forced to make difficult choices. "It will be not pay a bill and get food, or pay the bill and not get food, or turn to emergency pantries," said Jennifer Mariano, programs director for Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado.
"When you think what $36 in food means to a family of four, what they will lose, we are talking milk, bread, cereal, chicken, ground beef," McGinn said.
Colorado has a lower participation in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) than many states. It was about 33rd in state funding in 2011, according to federal statistics.
But even at that, more than a half million individuals receive food stamps in Colorado.
Half of the recipients are children or the elderly.
"We knew the cuts were coming to an end, but it is still hard," McGinn said. "We still have double the amount of cases we had before the recession."
The same increase has been seen locally.
In El Paso County, about 10 percent of the population or 71,000 individuals get federal help with their food bills. About $9.7 million is paid out monthly, county officials said.
Before the recession, there were about 14,000 cases (which can include more than one person). Now there are 31,500 cases with no sign of letup, said Arturo Serrano, economic assistance manager for El Paso County's Department of Human Services.
Those who help the poor say significant cuts anytime would be bad. But this cut is particularly unkind coming as it does at the start of the holiday season and winter's higher utility bills.
"The timing wasn't thought out at all," Serrano said.
The cuts will seriously impact food banks and other agencies that take up the slack, McGuinn said. Those groups have seen some downturns or flat responses in donations, while demand rose during the recession.
There have been some upticks in donations during disasters such as fires and flooding.
Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, which serves 340 partner agencies, last year provided 18.6 million pounds of food.
"We have been consistently increasing distribution, but donations aren't fulfilling the need out there. We were able to reach 104,000 people, when the number who need help is more than 165,000," said Mariano, of Care and Share.
At Silver Key, a local nonprofit that provides a variety of services for the elderly, more than 1,000 people receive food assistance - double the number from before the recession, says Lorri Orwig, chief development officer.
It recently conducted a Thanksgiving food drive with the goal of filling 1,000 grocery bags for its clients.
"So far, we received only enough food donations to fill 350 bags," Orwig said.
"Finding resources to feed the hungry may worsen with the new federal farm bill," Mariano said. "We have to get the word out, we need people to make calls to their congressmen."
School districts have added breakfasts and even dinners to the federally available free and reduced-price lunch programs for impoverished children.
Tammy Brunnar, nutrition supervisor at Harrison School District 2, expects more sign-ups because of the food stamp cuts. It has 7,329 students who receive meal benefits out of the student body of 10,600. The need has been so great that it recently started providing dinner to 1,700 kids who stay after school for academics. "So many come to us hungrier in the morning because they don't get what they need at home."
She explained, "Food is energy for the brain. Without it they can't stay on task, lose patience, get tired and shut down.
"Maybe $36 doesn't sound like much to the average Joe, but it could be a week of groceries for our families," she said. "Some have lost jobs, are separated, there are deployments, illness, accidents, many reasons they are in that situation."
She believes that food assistance should not be on the cutting block.
"It's sad when our country takes food away from those in need, our children and elderly. It's just sad."
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw
Colorado Hunger Free Hotline: (855) 855-4626. A multi-language toll-free number that connects callers to geographically based private and public food assistance programs.
Where to donate:
Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado
2605 Preamble Point, Colorado Springs
Silver Key Senior Services
2250 Bott Ave., Colorado Springs