Alegra Roybal helps those who never thought they'd need her.
"I'm trying to target the people who have never been in this situation before," she says. "They never thought that they'd have to set foot in a government office and ask for assistance. By going through me, it takes a little bit of that pressure off, because I do the [food-stamp] application with them."
Roybal, a 22-year-old Colorado College alum, is working as food assistance coordinator for Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. Her CC fellowship began last June and will expire in September, unless funding for her position is extended.
Care and Share spokesperson Shannon Coker explains that the Colorado Springs-based organization had considered creating an outreach program to help people sign up for food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Roybal's fellowship provided the perfect opportunity, especially since the federal government was providing some funding.
"We understood that there was a need out there because the application for food stamps was extremely complicated," Coker says. "And more people are eligible than use it."
Across the country, programs like Care and Share's are popping up to help people apply for food assistance. While some may question the wisdom, there are obvious benefits. Those struggling are able to fill their tummies, achieve better health, and concentrate scarce resources on other needs, like medical bills or gas. For every $5 in SNAP benefits spent, states see $9 in economic activity. And organizations like Care and Share, having watched needs increase and donations stagnate through the recession, can relieve some pressure.
Lots of soldiers
Roybal has helped with 156 applications for government assistance. She's been a one-woman campaign thus far, often scouting out potential clients at libraries.
But recently, she reached out to Care and Share's partner organizations: food banks and food pantries that receive supplies from the bank. On March 29, seven "partner" volunteers and four Care and Share employees began learning to replicate what Roybal does.
At first, it looked simple. A few years ago, the government's food assistance application was a 25-page monster. Now it's a mere eight pages, and applicants can sign up for as many as 11 other programs on it.
But looks can be deceiving.
Roybal led the group through each question, noting the subtleties. When a question begins, "Do you pay ..." she notes, that's what it means. It doesn't mean, "Do you owe ..." or "Should you pay ..." It's easy to see how a novice would get confused.
A lot of families can't even tell if they qualify for the program, which requires that a family's gross income be 130 percent of poverty ($2,422 a month for a family of four) or less.
"It's particularly difficult for military families, because they get a housing allowance, and that's gross income. They never see it, they never touch it, they never have anything to do with it," she says. "...And a lot of uniformed soldiers come through food pantry lines."
When more trained helpers are available in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Roybal is hopeful that she can expand her fledgling program to other parts of southern Colorado, especially rural areas like Crowley County, the poorest county in the state. (See "A little goes a long way," cover story, July 21, 2011.)
In March, 469,000 Coloradans were enrolled in SNAP. February numbers for El Paso County (the most recent available) had local enrollees numbering 66,102.
But according to a 2010 annual study from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, only 48 percent of Coloradans eligible for food stamps are receiving them. That's compared to a national statistic of 69 percent.
'You just never know ...'
Sue McGinn, director of the food assistance program for Colorado, says states across the U.S. are working with the federal funding program that's trying to increase those numbers. States develops partnerships with nonprofits to move the effort forward, and Feeding America, Care and Share's national parent company, has been a big player.
Ross Fraser, media relations manager for Feeding America, notes the organization assisted with 168,000 SNAP applications last year.
For some, there may be an obvious and nagging question about all this: Do we really want more people on the government dole?
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark says the answer is yes, if it can help them out of a jam.
"You just never know when you'll be the one who's laid off and it's, 'Pay the mortgage, pay for these medications, or eat this week,'" she says. "That's what the program's designed for."
Others echo those comments. McGinn notes that most people average less than a year on food stamps, and during that time period, the food may give a family the extra resources needed to seek work. Fraser says he thinks doubters don't understand the modern look of poverty. On a recent visit to a food pantry, he saw a line out the door.
The meal: oatmeal. The crowd: Mostly people in work uniforms.
"I would say to anyone who's skeptical about this," he says, "the solution is to go to a soup kitchen or a food pantry and see who comes in there."