Meighen Lovelace’s activism is fueled by one part public passion and one part personal need.
Lovelace lives with her two young daughters in Avon in Eagle County. As with most resort areas, much of the work available can be temporary or seasonal. These kinds of opportunities are difficult when you also need help from federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One on-call job too many, and the nutritional help goes away, leaving Lovelace with two little ones who need breakfast or dinner.
“The people who live here full time are working-class people who are struggling,” Lovelace said. “I am one of the lucky ones. I have a car. I have a good education. I have a family that keeps me going. I live in a beautiful place where my kids are safe. But behind all of that, there are challenges we all face here no matter how hard we work. And we work hard. I see my neighbors getting up at the crack of dawn and coming home after dark. We are all working hard.”
Her situation is not the exception; it is nearly the rule. A full 74 percent of enrollees in the federal SNAP program in Colorado are families with children. A three-person family like Lovelace’s must make $26,556 or less to qualify.
Along with the paying jobs she finds and the children she is raising, Lovelace dedicates countless hours to working on food issues with the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. She understands the larger nutrition systems picture and the real challenges around ending hunger on a statewide scale. She saw a need in her community food bank for more fresh, healthy foods, so she began a community gardening program through the local Salvation Army. She has taught her daughters to glean at available farms and it has become a regular ritual in their lives. But all of this knowledge and effort doesn’t always translate into reliable food for her family. When she talks about these challenges, the strain is audible in her voice.
She describes a common situation. The window to submit paperwork for SNAP is often 10 days. It is not uncommon for the paperwork to arrive at or beyond the 10-day window. Once that issue is corrected, she lands a one-night catering job at a local wedding. She reports the income from that, but for purposes of the program, it’s spread out as weekly income or reported as bimonthly. She is booted off the program and often finds out when she is trying to check out at the grocery store and her SNAP card declines. She then has to go to the catering company and get a letter – or sometimes multiple letters – to clear up the issue. And the process starts again.
She is quick to point out that the rules for the federal program are difficult for communities like hers and she understands the dilemma. Her point is borne out in the data. The rules are actually difficult for everyone, especially the working class that may fluctuate based on extra shifts, overtime, or one-off catering gigs. They get extra money for the extra hours – which are never guaranteed and actually rare – but it lifts their income and makes them ineligible. In Eagle County, enrollment in the program is only 1,496 though an estimated 6,756 are eligible to participate. And while many resort counties have specific challenges with enrollment, their reality isn’t that different from the challenges faced across the state. Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for enrollment in the federal nutritional program, meaning that more than 320,000 Coloradans need help but aren’t getting it. This translates into a real economic issue for the state. For example, Colorado lost out on more than $261.8 million in grocery sales because of low enrollment in 2016.
Other challenges with using the federal program are also real, especially in and around Colorado’s resort communities. Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, estimates the average cost of a meal in Colorado at about $3.09. The SNAP program provides an average of $1.40 per meal or about $130 per person per month in grocery assistance. While this amount prices many out of fresh fruits and vegetables across the state, it is particularly hard to make those dollars stretch in mountain towns and other communities with a high cost of living.
Lovelace understands clearly that there isn’t a single solution to the issue of hunger, either in her own family’s life or across Colorado and the nation. But she is doing what she can.
“I am advocating for better systems because I am advocating for the people using them. I want to normalize these conversations. We’ll never find the solutions if we don’t,” she said. “It’s not shameful to be a mother that needs to use SNAP. Or for your kids to be on free and reduced lunch. There’s so much work to do. And I’m willing to keep working until we get to a better place.”