The fight against HUNGER

Benefits cut, need remains as pantries, other services, try to fill the growing gap

Families who rely on federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits now have less to spend on meals.

Following last November’s $5 billion reduction in SNAP benefits, they now have an average of $1.40 to spend per person, per meal.  And that reduction is having a ripple effect throughout the region, state and nation.

Illinois has the fifth highest number of residents receiving SNAP benefits in the country — 16 percent of the population. And even with government assistance, sometimes people are unable to purchase the food they need to survive and stay healthy.

Food pantries can help fill out shortages in a family diet, but they have felt the hit of SNAP cuts just as recipients have.

Donna Lake, communications director at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said between June and December 2013 they distributed 27 percent more food than during the same period in 2012.

“The need continues to grow, and any time that people’s budgets are stretched — be it through SNAP and also this incredibly cold weather this year where people have to choose between eating or paying their bills — the food budget is almost always cut first,” Lake said.

Other food banks have similar stories.

“We spent $11,000 more in the month of January than we budgeted for, and that was to meet the needs of families coming through here,” said Kim Adams-Bakke, executive director of the Rock River Valley Food Pantry in Rockford. “That’s huge.”

Prior to last year’s SNAP cut, benefits averaged out to about $1.50 per meal. That meant a reduction of 10 cents eventually resulted in a loss of $8.40 or up to six individual meals a month.

SNAP benefits were increased as part of the federal 2009 Recovery Act but expired last November. Efforts to restore funds failed in Congress.

“The stimulus increase that had been discontinued impacted families,” Adams-Bakke said. “And families that had been on long-term unemployment, that also has an effect. That ended in December.”

More than 425,000 people in a 13-county region stretching from Chicago’s suburbs through Boone, Winnebago and Stephenson counties report they don’t have enough food to lead a healthy, active life.

That survey, conducted by the Northern Illinois Food Bank using 2011 data, indicated one in five of that group are children.

The rate of food insecurity—worries at times where the next meal may come from—range from 8 percent in Kendall County (representing 8,800 people) to as high as 16. 3 percent in Winnebago (representing as many as 48,000).

Even affluent DuPage County is not immune. The food insecurity rate is 9.2 percent, or 84,490 people.

Food insecurity is not necessarily a constant concern, the survey report suggested. 

“Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods,” the report stated.

The Rock River Valley Food Pantry serves approximately 7,000 people per month, and their numbers are on the rise. On average, 632 more people visited the pantry each month from November 2013 to January 2014 compared to the same time frame in 2012.

That’s just a fraction of the need. “The 2009 Recovery Act boost to SNAP benefits was in place to offset the damage done by the recession, but the number of people who rely on food pantries could be a sign that the country has not recovered fast enough.

Kathlyn Wright, chair of the Outreach Committee at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave., said in an email that demand has increased since November.

“Prior to November, our highest number was approximately 80 families in a day,” Wright said. “In November and December, we had several days of 105 to 110 families. The first two weeks of the month are usually quieter, 35 to 40 families, but then the third and fourth weeks we have more clients as they have used up their SNAP allowance.”

While food pantries and SNAP recipients are already feeling the impact of the November reduction in benefits, they are preparing for another round of cuts that President Obama signed into law on Feb. 7. 

As part of the federal farm bill, SNAP benefits will be cut by about $8.5 billion over the next 10 years. With one in five Winnebago County children facing hunger, food pantries need all the help they can get.

Those interested in volunteering or donating to their local food pantry — or those seeking services — can visit the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s website at and enter their zip code to find nearby pantries.


—Article by Jessica Cabe, a former Northern Illinois University student now studying at Syracuse University. Jack McCarthy contributed.