Demand for assistance surges, but call being answered

Hunter Darringer, 5, can’t wait until he gets to the table to take a bite of his pie at the Catholic Outreach soup kitchen. Hunter’s family was eating at the soup kitchen after moving back to Grand Junction from Louisiana and finding housing difficult to find and unaffordable.

The number of families in Mesa County seeking public food assistance has surged this year after several years of steady decline, according to public statistics and local nonprofits.

A total of 3,559 households received food stamps in October — an 8 percent upswing over last year — according to figures from the Mesa County Department of Human Services.

The spike in demand for public and private food assistance comes a year after the U.S. Census Bureau reported a decline in the number of people receiving food stamps.

According to the federal agency’s 2007 American Community Survey, the number of Mesa County residents receiving food stamps has declined from 4,707 people in 2005 to 3,299 last year.

During the same time period, the average household receiving food stamps grew poorer, taking in $15,487 in 2005 to $14,260 last year, even as the county’s median income rose.

Roughly 60 percent of Mesa County households receiving food stamps fell below the federal poverty line. Half of the households receiving food stamps have children at home.

Karen Martsolf, spokeswoman for the Mesa County Department of Human Services, said these statistics, which rely on the federal poverty level, can understate the community’s needs.

She said the federal poverty level often lags behind the “family economic self-sufficiency standard,” which the county calculates. That figure, she said, gauges how much income a family needs to survive.

For example, a family of three, with two adults and an infant, needs to make $3,285 every month to be self-sufficient, according to the county. The federal poverty level for a family of three is a monthly income of $1,468.

To receive food stamps, a household must make 130 percent or less of the federal poverty level, she said.

Private organizations helping fill in the gaps between public programs and what could be considered sufficiency say the waning economy has given rise to a surge in demand for their services.

Sister Karen Bland, executive director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, said this surge in demand — which private food assistance programs and soup kitchens also have experienced — is largely due to the faltering economy along with a low amount of affordable housing.

“I think it’s reflective of the times,” Bland said. “It’s reflective of what’s happening in our valley with home costs (and) rental costs.”

Bland said these factors have forced people not accustomed to seeking assistance to show up at the soup kitchen or apply for the nonprofit’s other services.

“We’ve seen people that said they never dreamt of coming in here,” Bland said. “One lady came in, and she was a volunteer helping here.”

Starlene Collins, manager of the Western Slope Food Bank of the Rockies, which provides foodstuffs to food assistance programs across the region, said in her experience, local nonprofits are experiencing “record demand” for food assistance.

The upside, she said, is people have continued to donate even amid the ongoing economic slowdown.


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