Stretching grocery dollars: Nonprofits, agencies establish Food Security Watchdogs |

Stretching grocery dollars: Nonprofits, agencies establish Food Security Watchdogs

Routt County Department of Human Services employees Liz Kuker issues a SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, electronic benefits transfer card at the county department's temporary office on South Lincoln Avenue.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

This month could be a perfect storm for hundreds of families in Routt County as the COVID-19 pandemic emergency increases in SNAP food benefits decreased while costs for housing, utilities, gasoline and groceries continue to increase, said Sue Fegelein, executive director at LiftUp Routt County.

“Routt County is an incredibly expensive place to live. A lot of people who live here work two to three jobs just to try and make ends meet,” Fegelein said. “People in this situation, of all those static bills, food is the one that can give a little.”

During elevated food assistance during the pandemic, a family of four in Colorado with a gross income of approximately $2,000 per month could receive SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits of $949 maximum monthly. As of March 1, that family may now receive $590 per month maximum, said Jennifer Dorr, economic security supervisor at Routt County Department of Human Services.

Larger families in the mid-income bracket will be most impacted with the return to normal SNAP allotments, Dorr said.

“People are experiencing several hits as far as the cost of living, so the SNAP decrease for some folks will be significant,” Dorr said. “We are going to see a lot of elderly folks who are going to be impacted.”

Although SNAP monthly assistance can start as low as $23 per month for one person and varies based on household composition, household income sources and shelter expenses, some families will need to tighten their grocery budgets more this month. The highest number of Routt County households on SNAP during the pandemic was 509 in 2020, Dorr said, which dropped to 375 households in December 2022.

The nonprofit director encouraged more residents to take advantage of the LiftUp Food Banks, including the main location in Steamboat Springs and smaller locations in Oak Creek and Hayden.

Anyone in need of food can take advantage of the Grab ‘N Go cooler available at LiftUp Food Bank in Steamboat Springs. The section is open to everyone, no questions asked.
LiftUp Routt County/Courtesy photo

While families who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level can apply for SNAP, LiftUp Food Bank serves families who earn up to 300%.

“A lot of people don’t realize that their income levels meet our financial requirements for the food bank,” Fegelein said. “They make too much on paper to receive government benefits, but in reality, they struggle to make ends meet.”

That food bank assistance translates to a grocery cart of food each month plus another monthly shop for vegetables. Even without applying for assistance, anyone in need can pick up food items, no questions asked, from the Grab ‘N Go Foods section at the front of LiftUp Food Bank at 2095 Curve Court in Steamboat.

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In the summer, LiftUp helped to create a working group called Routt County Food Security Watchdogs that includes representatives from 11 local nonprofits, county departments and agencies. The group discusses current and anticipated food gaps and how to fill those gaps, Fegelein said.

The watchdogs are working to fill gaps for baby products, for example, through a planned Women United baby shower and to enlist proxy shopper volunteers who deliver food to people who are unable to travel to the food bank. The watchdogs reached out to hunters to ask for donations of USDA-processed meat.

Although financial donations go further because LiftUp can buy in bulk through Food Bank of the Rockies, community food donations also are encouraged to provide more variety in shelf-stable items such as hearty soups, pastas, tomato sauces, tuna, beans, and baking items such as flour and vegetable oil.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Dorr said human services staff has been preparing families for the SNAP reduction to previous levels for months, including distributing information on how best to stock a food pantry with key basics and how to use ingredients in more than one meal to save money and prevent food waste.

Inflation in food prices as well as increased need in the community has hit the LiftUp Food Bank budget hard. The number of food bank clients from January 2022 to January 2023 increased by 30% at the same time that food donations, food drives and grocery store rescue volumes decreased by 28% overall, Fegelein said. The combined donations rescued from grocery and convenience stores dropped from 6,697 pounds in January 2022 to 4,260 pounds in January 2023.

LiftUp Food Bank served 1,079 individuals in 2020, and that number grew to 2,285 in 2021 then to 2,676 in 2022. The number of food bank clients has not dropped in 2023 with 925 served in January alone.

“Since the pandemic, we are seeing a significant number of new families,” Fegelein said.

The LiftUp budget for food in 2022 was $84,000, but the organization spent almost $180,000 in part due to the increase in food costs, Fegelein said. For 2023, the food budget is $223,500.

Tips, tricks to save on grocery shopping

Utilizing some basic smart steps while shopping at the grocery store can help families save on monthly food bills.

Advice on supermarket tricks abounds, through outlets ranging from Reader’s Digest to

Experts advise shoppers to look at food unit prices to know the real cost of food per ounce or pound for accurate comparisons of similar products. Less expensive store or generic brands of foods can be just as tasty as more expensive name brands.

Shop at less crowded times for a less stressed visit with enough time to compare prices.

Many families sign up for store shopper savings cards that offer electronic coupons. Watch for sales and cheaper bulk pricing for commonly used staples.

The dietician staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center provided tips on healthy and frugal grocery shopping.

First, plan before going to the grocery store by surveying the household refrigerator, freezer and pantry to choose meals based on what already is on hand to minimize food waste and save money.

“Sometimes the healthier option can be less expensive, but it might take a little more planning and time to make it,” said Cara Marrs, a registered dietitian nutritionist at YVMC.

For example, Marrs suggested instead of buying premade chicken tenders, purchase chicken when it is on sale and use ingredients purchased in bulk to make the breading.

Notice which proteins, fruits and vegetables are on sale and build meals around those. Vegetable-based proteins can be less expensive than meats as the basis of a meal such as
beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and eggs. Or substitute beans for a portion of the protein to save on meat.

Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables have a longer shelf life than fresh counterparts and can cost less and be just as nutritious. Fresh vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots and celery can be purchased in bulk because they last longer when stored properly.

Be wary of impulse purchases at the store that can increase food costs.

Buy in family-sized packs and freeze what is not used immediately.

Drink water to save money because soda and sports drinks can be unhealthy and expensive.

Financial donations go further because the nonprofit can buy in bulk through Food Bank of the Rockies. Community food donations to LiftUp also are encouraged to provide a variety of shelf-stable items such as hearty soups, pastas, tomato sauces, tuna, beans, and baking items such as flour and vegetable oil.

Fegelein noted Feeding America data from 2020 showed 9.7% of the overall population and 10.2% of children 17 and younger in Routt County were considered food insecure.

To help bridge the SNAP gap, Department of Human Services staff plans to be on hand during the busiest times at the LiftUp food bank to work with clients to help them apply for all eligible benefits, such as for Colorado Works, also known as TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“Folks are just really concerned about what their food allotment is going down to, and with the increase in food prices, it’s little bit heavier of an impact,” Dorr said this week of her busy client roster.

Experts say grocery shoppers should review unit prices for food to know the real cost of food per pound or ounce for accurate comparisons.
SNAP/Courtesy image

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