Routt County families risk losing food stamps if government shutdown continues
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The 410 households in Routt County that rely on food stamps face concerns over how those federal benefits will continue if the partial government shutdown persists.
The partial shutdown, now in its 34th day, has jeopardized funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, also known as food stamps. More than 40 million Americans depend on the program for food each month.
Already, the shutdown left counties across Colorado scrambling last weekend to ensure that families received their February food stamps weeks ahead of schedule.
People who rely on food stamps will have to make those benefits stretch until the end of February at least. What happens after remains a mystery.
Facing confusion and uncertainty, families will likely rely more heavily on local food banks in the coming weeks to meet their needs. To help households, nonprofits around Routt County have stepped up their services in anticipation of a surge in demand.
If the partial shutdown continues past February, SNAP will not have enough funds to provide food stamps for all of the people in the program. The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities predicts a 40 percent cut in benefits for each household in March. After March, households may not receive any benefits at all if the shutdown continues.
Kelly Keith, director of the Routt County Department of Human Services, could not specify how many people within the county rely on food stamps. The federal government defines a “household” as a family of one to eight members. So, those 410 households could mean that thousands of people in Routt County will be affected by these changes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency in charge of SNAP, allowed households to file paperwork by Jan. 15 to receive their February benefits early. Most households received those benefits by Jan. 20.
Keith said several human service offices in counties across Colorado had to stay open through the weekend to ensure people received their benefits. Those who failed to turn in their paperwork to the Department of Agriculture by Jan. 15 will not receive further benefits until the shutdown ends.
Even households that received their February food stamps may face challenges budgeting them over a longer period than they are used to. While those families have their full benefits for January and February, they are used to budgeting each month’s benefits for a four-week period.
Keith said that for many families, budgeting their food stamps over that time period proved difficult.
“A lot of us have that experience of reaching the end of the month and barely having enough money to make it until the next paycheck,” she said.
Now, families will have to budget those food stamps to last the next six weeks at least, and possibly longer.
Keith added the early allotment of food stamps could confuse some families.
“Some people may not be aware that is their February benefit,” she said.
With that in mind, Keith said her office’s main response to the SNAP issue has been outreach. She and her colleagues have tried to ensure that families are aware of the changes to the program and that they know about additional food assistance nonprofits in the community. That could put a strain on those services.
“The food banks are going to be hit hard,” Keith said.
LiftUp of Routt County is one such nonprofit that has been particularly active in preparing for a spike in demand for free food because of the partial government shutdown. It operates three food banks: one in Steamboat, one in Hayden and one in Oak Creek.
Sue Fegelein, executive director of LiftUp, said it has been difficult to know how many additional people the food banks will need to provide for.
“We’re basically preparing for the unknown at this point,” she said.
Fegelein has been reaching out to community members and local groups to encourage additional food drives and monetary donations.
Money can be especially helpful. She said LiftUp can stretch a dollar four times further than someone buying food at a grocery store. That is because the nonprofit purchases discounted food through the Food Bank of the Rockies.
Russell Goodman, food manager at LiftUp’s food bank, said he has already seen an uptick in customers. Some of those new faces coming through the food bank are government employees, mostly from the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
Goodman is optimistic the community can meet an increased demand for free food.
He said donations to the food bank have stayed strong following the holiday season. The high rates of donations that typically accompany Christmas generosity have continued past the New Year.
“That’s a result of the community’s awareness of what is going on with the government,” Goodman said.
Fegelein shares his optimism. She has seen strong donations at food drives across Routt County and expects more food collection efforts from local activists.
“I have no doubt that the community will step up and help our members who are suffering because of this shutdown,” she said.
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