Editor’s note: This vignette is part of the Lived Experience series, which highlights how Coloradans benefit from advocacy efforts led by CCLP and its partners.

Being a pre-school teacher is arguably one of the most essential and demanding jobs to perform during a global pandemic. For Margarita, her job as a preschool teacher is made even more challenging by difficulties associated with accessing affordable, nutritious food for herself and her family.

Fortunately, some of Margarita’s challenges are defrayed by a small benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), which ensures that families and individuals with extremely limited resources can obtain some extra cash for groceries.

“It’s hard, because I have three at home and I get $168 [in one month from SNAP],” Margarita says. “That’s not even what I spend on groceries, you know? … My income is not great. And I sometimes have to work [extra] afternoons or do something on the side just to be able to make ends meet for me at home with them [her kids].”

Margarita is a U.S. citizen and immigrant from Michoacán, Mexico. She currently resides in Montrose, where she cares for an 18-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. Through her job as a preschool teacher, Margarita has spent the past several months navigating new ways to teach her students and looking for opportunities to ensure that she can earn a sufficient income. “We did video Zoom with them [her students] sometimes, but they want to show me their rooms and their toys … they don’t care for us just singing the ABC’s or anything,” Margarita says and laughs. “They’re a little bit harder.”

Getting by with minimal resources
Margarita is one of many Coloradans across the state experiencing food insecurity.

“I am enrolled in the SNAP program, because my income is very low, and I have my two kids and they’re both going to school,” she says. “It’s hard when they give you just a minimum. And I feel like sometimes they don’t really pay attention to how much actually kids eat, or how much we need, you know? Because what I get, I feel like I can just make enough money for maybe a week or two.”

It is especially difficult for Margarita to afford nutritious, fresh foods to keep herself and her family healthy. “I can probably spend $100 just on vegetables and then I won’t get the rest for anything,” she says. “I think it’s really important for my kids to be eating well and to be able to focus at school, but I can’t provide that sometimes. I’m just like, ‘OK here’s eggs again,’ that’s all we have right now.”

Since Margarita’s son recently turned 18, her SNAP benefit was decreased by around $100. “He’s still with me, [and] you cut me $100,” she states. “It’s a little bit frustrating because we need the help and it’s not enough … the grocery prices go up instead of down. I think for me as a single mom it’s been a struggle.”

Despite the low amount that Margarita receives in benefits, she says she feels blessed to be enrolled in SNAP. One out of every 11 Coloradans struggles with food insecurity, yet, of Colorado’s eligible SNAP population, only about 60 percent are enrolled. In addition to losses in federal funding, this limited enrollment makes it difficult for individuals and families to access affordable and nutritious food in order to stay healthy and achieve their goals.

“Access to nutritious food is one of the social determinants of health,” said Sara Lipowitz, Public Benefits Attorney for CCLP. “SNAP benefits may not be a large amount, but in families experiencing poverty, every dollar is crucial. Additional money for food also frees up money in the family budget for other important expenses, such as transportation, rent, and utilities.”

CCLP works to maximize SNAP enrollment and expand access to food through community programs and organizations. Additionally, CCLP proposes policies and meets regularly with the Department of Human Services to make it easier for Coloradans to access essential SNAP benefits.

From recipient to advocate
Within her own community, Margarita has noticed limited SNAP enrollment among eligible families. Knowing this, she uses her own lived experience to act as a valuable resource and advocate for greater access and enrollment in the SNAP program. In addition to encouraging people to apply for SNAP, she helps guide community members through the application process itself.

“I have helped people fill out applications [for SNAP] that don’t understand, and they don’t know that because they’re not residents or citizens they can still get the help for their kids,” she says. “[With] the kind of community that I’ve worked with; Hispanic communities, sometimes there’s people that don’t even know that there’s help out there, and the first thing they ask — it’s sad to say — is  ‘do I have to have a Social [Security number]?’… I don’t feel like they understand what they need to be able to qualify with. That’s what they fear.”

When asked about the one thing she wants readers to come away with regarding SNAP, Margarita stressed that people must “not to be scared to ask … Just because you ask for that extra help doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or [that] you’re not doing your part for your community. Sometimes people get scared to ask, and that’s really important for people not to fear or feel embarrassed … I work at a school district and I still need help. I still need help and I feel blessed because I do get what I get, but sometimes I need a little bit extra.”

Margarita was connected with CCLP with the help of Abbie Brewer through Housing Resources of Western Colorado (HRWC). For 42 years, HRWC has been working to provide stable and sustainable housing and services to those in need across Western Colorado. HRWC offers affordable rentals, housing rehabilitation loan programs, homeownership education and programs, one-on-one counseling and coaching, and more. Learn more at https://www.hrwco.org/

-By Andra Metcalfe