SNAP on Aisle 6
Hunger Free Colorado Takes Sign-Up Process into Stores
By Rebecca Jones
Donita Rafferty, food assistance navigator for Hunger Free Colorado, seeks out those eligible and helps them sign up.
Photography by Barry Staver
Donita Rafferty knows firsthand the widespread myths and misconceptions that surround the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Many of those misunderstandings contribute to Colorado's abysmal SNAP participation rate, which is among the lowest in the country.
Hired by Hunger Free Colorado to be a food assistance navigator, Rafferty helps low-income people figure out if they qualify for help from SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, and then to walk them through the sometimes-daunting application process. (While the government funds the program, states administer it.) In the process, she educates people about SNAP.
"I see a lot of people who, for the first time in their lives, are having to ask for help," Rafferty says. "A lot of them have always worked, but then they got laid off or they've lost much of their income. Sadly, many will wait until their options are down to zero before they do something. Some of them are living in their cars."
In Colorado, only 47 percent of those eligible for food assistance participated in SNAP last year. Still, that is up substantially from 2010, when only 41 percent participated, says Katherine Moos, spokesperson for Hunger Free Colorado, a statewide anti-hunger advocacy organization.
Part of the improvement comes from streamlining the Colorado application form, shortened from 26 pages to a less-intimidating eight pages, Moos says. The state also did away with its asset test, which opened the program to some low-income residents who might have some modest savings that previously would have disqualified them.
Last August, Hunger Free Colorado launched a grocery store initiative, to put navigators such as Rafferty out in the field. Several days a week, Hunger Free Colorado staff members set up a table in a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood along the Front Range. (Hunger Free's bilingual, toll-free hotline lists locations: 855.855.4626 or 720.382.2920.)
"I'll walk around the store and approach people," Rafferty says. "I'll start the conversation by telling people about Hunger Free Colorado and explain that if they're not already on food assistance, we have a chart with us to determine their eligibility based on their income and their family size. Then, if they want to and have the time, we can sign them up right then and there. It takes about 20 minutes to complete the application with them." Rafferty also distributes cards promoting the hotline.
Having someone right in the grocery store to walk them through the application is just the motivation some participants need, Moos says. "It's like doing your taxes," she says. "It can be confusing to complete the forms without the help of an expert."
Filling out the applications requires no documentation. Rafferty explains to applicants that a caseworker will call them within a few days to set up an interview, and she tells them what documentation they will need to provide. Once they are deemed eligible, applicants can start receiving benefits within 30 days, or in as little as seven days if their situation is critical.
Many people are surprised to learn they are eligible for assistance, she says. "A lot think if they have any job at all they won't qualify, but that's not true. Many seniors on fixed incomes are totally shocked when they see they more than qualify for food assistance."
Rafferty says legal residents hoping to become citizens hesitate to apply for food assistance because they think it will hurt their chances for citizenship. "That's not true," she says.
Most of all, Rafferty works to reassure applicants that there is no longer a stigma surrounding food assistance. Almost 45 million Americans received SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2011 at a cost of $78 billion (including administrative costs). Coloradans received nearly $763 million of that amount.
"Until I started this job, I didn't realize that SNAP is an entitlement program just like Social Security and Medicare," Rafferty says. "All eligible Coloradans could receive benefits."