Chefs at Volunteers of America’s Commerce City branch happily prepared meals as Yadira Caraveo walked through the kitchen. The local congresswoman toured the site to learn about people who struggle to afford nutritious food in the metro area.
“COVID really brought to light that this is a very common issue and so I’m here today talking to people who have been working on this for decades, realizing that there are people in our community who need help to get food on the table,” Caraveo said.
The backdrop for her visit to the site on Nov. 10 is the Farm Bill, which expired in September.
A part of the bill provides funds to help feed needy families: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The bill is overdue for its five-year renewal in the House. As a member of the Argiculture Committee, Caraveo, a Democrat representing the 8th District, which includes Commerce City, Thornton, Northglenn and Fort Lupton, plays a key role in efforts to reauthorize the bill.
Some Republicans have called for cuts to SNAP, but Caraveo opposes them. She noted the rising costs of living in recent years, including record inflation and housing costs across the metro area. She said cuts would hurt low-income families.
“So many times when we are looking at budgets, it seems like just numbers, but budgets are about what our values are,” Caraveo said.
It appears any substantial debate over any cuts could be delayed until next year. This week, with leaders seeking to avert a government shutdown, announced they were working to prevent lapses in funding to Farm Bill programs. The four leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees issued a statement saying they were working together.
“As negotiations on funding the government progress, we were able to come together to avoid a lapse in funding for critical agricultural programs and provide certainty to producers,” the joint statement said. “This extension is in no way a substitute for passing a five-year Farm Bill and we remain committed to working together to get it done next year.”
On Tuesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill from Speaker Mike Johnson to continue government funding. That bill, which continues funding until early next year, next moves to the Senate for a vote expected this week.
Increasingly families are relying on SNAP, part of a decade-long trend. During the Great Recession in 2013, funding hit $103 billion, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. It slowly declined in subsequent years but escalated dramatically during the COVID pandemic. In the 2020 fiscal year, SNAP spending hit $92 billion and rose to more than $127 the year after. Last year, spending only declined slightly.
That pattern has played out in Colorado, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington. SNAP participants across the state received $639 million in benefits in 2019. As the pandemic hit, spending rose to more than $912 million in 2020, $1.3 billion in 2021, and $1.47 billion in 2022 (figures that include temporary pandemic relief).
SNAP helped roughly 9% of Colorado’s population last year, according to the center.
Households on the program receive electronic benefit transfer cards, which can be used to purchase food at hundreds of locations across Colorado.
When lawmakers return to discuss SNAP, Caraveo supports only one change to the program. She wants to keep work-requirement exemptions in place to aid vulnerable groups – veterans, children in foster care and homeless people.
“That is something that I am supportive of continuing,” she said of the exemptions that were first granted in recent debt negotiations.
To that end, Caraveo is pushing the Food Access and Stability Act, which seeks to extend a waiver on working requirements for the groups.
“Every dollar means that there is access to a program for a person,” Caraveo said.
After her tour of the VOA in Commerce City, Caraveo hosted a roundtable discussion to hear more about the organization and its clients. The VOA not only works to feed families in need, but helps create a sense of community. Kevin MacCary, a VOA leader who helps deliver food through Meals on Wheels, said his program provides more than just meals to people.
“They need more than just the food,” MacCary said. “There’s food for the body, but there’s also food for the soul that you need. When you look at the value of these programs, it’s certainly geared towards people who need it to eat, but to also have companionship.”
Volunteers of America CEO David Schunk agreed.
“The government has a huge role. [It] sets nutrition guidelines, but on the other end, the last mile is really delivered by the volunteers, by the community. So, it’s that combination, the best of America,” he said.
Several VOA participants said the organization has opened doors to opportunities and relationships that brought stability to their lives.
Update: On Nov. 15 the U.S. Senate voted 87-11 to approve the U.S. House measure that averts a government shutdown through the holidays. It extends funding for myriad programs, including SNAP, into early next year.