Colorado officials aim to address child food insecurity as federal assistance unwinds


Boram Kim


With federal emergency allotments to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ending last month, state efforts to address food insecurity among Coloradan children are underway. 

Gov. Jared Polis signed a $14 million supplemental budget appropriation in early March to fund local food banks and pantries.  

The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) closed its request for applications process and is expeditiously conducting community reviews to distribute $9.5 million of the funds immediately to local food banks and food bank associations statewide. The remaining $4.5 million will be earmarked for food pantries administered by third-party partners Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger and the Trailhead Institute.

Karla Maraccini, division director of food and energy assistance programs at CDHS, told State of Reform (SOR) her agency is working to connect families with young children to the various public assistance programs available to them. 

“We’re really working closely with collective impact groups, advocacy groups, family resource centers, [and] nonprofit organizations all over the state to ensure that we are educating people about what they may be eligible for and how they can take advantage of that or participate in those programs,” Maraccini said. “Some organizations certainly have a targeted interest in ensuring that families with young children are supported … so we’re trying to make sure we are offering other services to individuals, regardless of where they are in the spectrum. We don’t want anyone to be left in a very highly vulnerable position.”

Nearly 10% of Coloradans rely on SNAP for food assistance, 66% of whom live with children. A 2022 report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign showed 16% of children in the state were not getting adequate nutrition due to their household financial constraints prior to the pandemic. 

“Throughout the pandemic, the share of Colorado households with kids where children were not eating enough because food was unaffordable ranged from 18% in June 2020 to a high of 37% in December 2021-January 2022,” the report states. 

A household of four on SNAP will have experienced a reduction of $360 on average, according to Maraccini. The cuts come at a difficult time as Colorado food banks and pantries deal with increased pressures from inflation and food demand. 

While increased federal funding to support programs like SNAP and free food distribution through school and day care center closures over the course of the pandemic likely decreased food insecurity among some families with children, the report indicated that struggles to afford food were still widespread among households with children.

With Colorado set to initiate its Medicaid redetermination process next month, concerns over health impacts to low-income children are growing. Reports estimate more than 200,000 children are at risk of losing health coverage. 

CDHS has seen an increase in the number of applications for support programs. Maraccini says the changes are forcing many to choose between feeding their families and paying for rent or other expenses. 

The Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger (CBEH) released a plan in 2018 on statewide coordination to end hunger in Colorado, and state agencies have been working with anti-hunger organizations to increase year-round access to food for kids and teens. 

The unwinding of the public health emergency is top of mind for CBEH Integration Director Joel McClurg, who said the end of emergency allotments and SNAP has presented a dramatic shift to the volume and quality of food available for those in need.

“We have a lot of folks who are saying [they are] going back to eating nothing but beans and rice,” McClurg said. “‘I’m having to really stretch [my] budget—my SNAP benefits fell from $250 to $25,’ which is not completely unheard of for some fixed incomes with income sources from things like disability or retirements.

And now that that reality [has] hit where [we are] about a month into it at this point, the system is incredibly stressed and people are really in difficult positions, struggling to make ends meet.”

The state will launch its Healthy School Meals for All program, which passed through a ballot measure during the midterms. The federal free-meals program to feed all public school students regardless of their family’s income expired last fall. School districts participating in the federal National School Lunch Program and/or the School Breakfast Program will have the option to implement free meals for all programs starting this upcoming school year. The program is open to nearly all school districts in the state and would provide free meals to students regardless of income. 

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) said the window for school districts to opt in to the voluntary program will run from May through July. According to a CDE survey in which 60% of qualifying school districts responded, 85% of districts expressed interest in participating, while 15% were unsure. 

Riley Brehan, director of school nutrition at CDE, said the agency saw a 20-40% increase in participation when meals were free for all during the 2020-2022 school years. CDE is working to ensure meals are nutritious, and anticipates increased school and student engagement in the program when it kicks off this fall. 

“The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has established the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative to improve the nutritional quality of school meals through food systems transformation, school food authority recognition and technical assistance, the generation and sharing of innovative ideas, and tested practices and grants,” Brehan said. “We will be promoting this initiative to all of our districts. Additionally, starting in SY 2024-25, a district that opts into the Healthy School Meals for All program may also opt into the Local Food Program and receive additional funds and grant opportunities to purchase more local foods.”

Every five years, CDE conducts an administrative review (AR) of school nutrition program sponsors to ensure program integrity and compliance, offer additional training and support, and acknowledge the positive efforts and innovative approaches to serving nutritious meals to children during the school year.  

To ensure program integrity in between AR cycles, sponsors complete a technical assistance visit with CDE School Nutrition staff, which focuses on program operations, including resource management, procurement, civil rights, and on-site monitoring. Officials also analyze data to determine where the gaps in food access are, and work with partners to plan and execute the Summer Food Service Program in those areas. 

Brehan said CDE School Nutrition and Nourish Colorado have collaborated on a series of school administrative trainings to increase knowledge and skills around preparing more scratch-made menu items that meet student preferences. The two groups also partner on LoProCO (Local Procurement Colorado) workshops to provide networking opportunities between school nutrition professionals and local producers.

Brehan’s unit oversees the Local Food Program and the Local Food for Schools Cooperative Grant, which provide school funding to support the purchase of local foods.

State food assistance officials are closely tracking congressional efforts to renew the Farm Bill this year, which is currently being debated and reworked by lawmakers, for SNAP and food insecurity support. 

During the pandemic, waivers were utilized to process cases without an interview. CDHS has been advocating at the federal level to make acquiring SNAP benefits easier, which Maraccini hopes the Farm Bill will address. 

“What we saw in Colorado is it decreased [the] burden both for families and workers,” Maraccini said. “It also gave us the opportunity to examine whether or not it impacted our payment accuracy rate. And it didn’t; there was no negative effect. So this is a great example of something we could do for families and for individuals to make it easier for them to participate in these programs.”