Nutrition Column – Food Assistance Available for Those in Need

No one should go hungry in the United States, the most industrialized and wealthiest country in the world. Yet, approximately 38 million Americans are considered "food insecure," which means they have trouble finding the money to keep food on the table.

Statewide, roughly 10 percent of Coloradans are food insecure, amounting to about a half-million people, or one in 10 Colorado households. According to a recent survey, Coloradans in need of food assistance are often part of hard-working families that have to choose between food and such necessities as paying rent, utility bills or medical bills. Whether faced with a one-time food shortage or an ongoing problem, several government and community programs are designed to help ensure that people have access to nutritious food and meals.

If you or someone you know might benefit from food assistance, consider the following resources.

Food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens: In times of crisis, these organizations are there to provide emergency food assistance to those in need. The Colorado Food Bank Association’s five-member food banks distribute food to more than 1,500 nonprofit agencies that provide meals and services to people in need. From food pantries to day-care centers to residential treatment centers, these agencies serve all ages and segments of our society.

Food Stamp program: Administered by state agencies and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the food stamp program allows low-income families and individuals to buy food using Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards at participating retail stores and some farmers’ markets. To qualify, households must apply through local county departments of human or social services and meet certain eligibility standards concerning income, employment, citizenship status, etc.

National School Lunch Program: This federally assisted meal program operates in public and nonprofit private schools as well as child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. School lunches must be in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories. Any child who attends a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Low-income families may qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. Free and reduced-priced breakfasts are also served at participating schools through the School Breakfast Program.

Special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC):  This program, funded by the federal government, provides food assistance and nutrition education through state-run agencies to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and preschoolers who are at nutritional risk. In most states, WIC participants receive checks or vouchers each month to purchase foods that will increase their intake of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin A and/or vitamin C. Application is made through the local public health department.

Senior nutrition programs: The Older Americans Act helps fund two nutrition programs designed to provide meal assistance for seniors. For older Americans who are housebound and unable to prepare food independently, Meals on Wheels delivers meals designed to provide one-third of the recommended daily nutrients for older adults. For seniors able to get out, group meals served in senior centers or churches provide not only a nutritious meal but the opportunity to socialize. In northern Colorado, both programs are operated by Volunteers of America. Participants do not pay for meals, but are asked to make contributions toward the cost of meals. However, no one is denied service due to an inability to make a contribution.

For more information about these programs or to learn about other food and nutrition assistance programs that may be available in your area, please check with your social worker, your local public health department or the state or area Agency on Aging.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension