Number of residents who need food help reaches all-time high
The stock market may be holding steady and foreclosure rates may be easing, but one of the most basic economic barometers shows Mesa County residents are struggling as much as ever to put food on the table for themselves and their families and meet other basic needs.
The number of local residents applying for and receiving food assistance from the government has climbed to an all-time high, a sign the recession is holding strong in western Colorado.
A total of 696 people filed applications in January to receive preloaded cards to purchase groceries. It’s the most applications the county ever received in a month and nearly double the number of applications submitted four years ago.
Meanwhile, the number of households receiving financial assistance to buy food ballooned in February to 6,957, a 27 percent jump over the same time last year. A total of 15,597 individuals were receiving food assistance in February, 1,000 more than just four months earlier.
“This is really the worst we have seen it in at least the last decade,” Mesa County Department of Human Services spokeswoman Karen Martsolf said.
Other government assistance programs are seeing similarly bulging rolls.
In January, more than 400 households were receiving help through Temporary Aid for Needy Families, a federal program that provides cash assistance for diapers, toilet paper and other items not covered by food assistance. That’s more than double the number receiving assistance in 2007.
The county fielded more than 5,700 applications for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps residents pay a portion of their winter utility bills. With a month left in the application period, the county expects to equal the number of requests for energy bill help it received last year.
The total number of county residents on Medicaid is approaching 20,000, or about 13 percent of the local population. Three years ago, a little more than 13,000 were on Medicaid.
“The number of people who are enrolled in both food assistance and family and children’s Medicaid are two of the biggest indicators of people living in poverty in our community,” Martsolf said.
She noted only half of those who apply for food assistance qualify, an indication there are hundreds of residents each month who are laboring to keep their pantry full, regardless of what their paycheck says.
“They make too much money to qualify for our programs, but it speaks to the number of people in our community who are feeling strapped, who don’t feel like they can make ends meet, but don’t know where to turn for help,” Martsolf said.
Those who fall into that category are redirected to community food banks, programs that, in turn, are seeing an increase in demand.
The Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies provides food to many of those pantries, serving roughly 150 hunger-relief programs in the region. Manager Starlene Collins said the food bank distributed a little more than 1 million pounds of food during its 2008–09 fiscal year and 2.2 million pounds during the 2009–10 fiscal year. In just the first six months of this fiscal year, it’s nearly equaled last year’s output.
Last fall, food-bank volunteers for the first time began driving trucks to communities outside the Grand Valley, such as El Jebel and Meeker, to help smaller food banks that were struggling to meet hungry families’ needs.
During a recent run to El Jebel, volunteers passed out food to 100 families in just 45 minutes, Collins said.
“Because of the increase in poverty, increase in need, outlying food pantries just aren’t able to accommodate everybody,” she said.
Salvation Army Capt. Dan Wilson said the amount of food the nonprofit organization is handing out now is on par with last year, while requests for clothing and household items are up.
“It continues to be very steady as far as what we’re giving out,” he said.