One in 6 hungry in Cook County, food stamp cuts in Senate Farm Bill could make it worse

One in 6 hungry in Cook County, food stamp cuts in Senate Farm Bill could make it worse
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Most people think those who are food insecure live below or near the national poverty level of $23,550 a year for a family of four. But the demographics of Cook County residents who can’t afford enough food to have an active lifestyle or meet their health needs vary widely--and could include your neighbor.

A recent data analysis from the Chicago-based Feeding America, a hunger relief charity, shows that food insecurity continues to rise. In 2011, Cook County had 860,760 residents who were considered food insecure, meaning they didn’t have enough food to have an active lifestyle or meet their health needs. This was an increase of nearly 50,000 people from 2010.

Eighteen percent of Cook County’s food insecure residents earned incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, and 50 percent were below 130 percent of the poverty level. But the most surprising group was those who had incomes too high to qualify for any nutritional benefits but were still food insecure--33 percent, according to Feeding America.

The data come from Feeding America’s 2013 Map the Meal Gap data. The report used unemployment, median income, poverty and demographic data from the U.S. Census Current Population Survey to calculate food insecurity in counties all over the country.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository has seen a “dramatic increase” among people whose incomes have dropped and only recently started needing food assistance, said Jim Conwell, communications director at the Depository, a food bank that serves Cook County.

This group has been called the “new poor” and the “working poor” and offers a revealing picture of the most recent downturn. Because they are employed, they do not show up in unemployment indicators, which are used to gauge signs of an economic recovery. 

Reports of jobs created since the Great Recession are particularly cheerful, but there is a grimmer reality. Jobs created since the start of the Great Recession are more likely to be on the lower end of the pay scale. 

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Disability also strongly increases the chances of being food insecure, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report from January 2013. Those who are disabled often struggle to find living-wage jobs.

Food pantries, which distribute food to people in need, are an important way to tackle food insecurity on the local level, Conwell said.  The Greater Chicago Food Depository provides food to more than 400 pantries throughout Cook County. They are run by community groups, churches or non-profits, and are usually open one or two days a week.

Because pantries are so widespread around the city, Conwell said they paint a detailed picture of demand for food in Chicago. In the Depository’s 34-year history, there has never been a greater demand than now for pantry services, he said.

From July to April of fiscal year 2012, the Depository recorded 4.2 million individual visits to pantries in its network, illustrating how often a family or individual needed food aid. That number of visits is a 77 percent increase over fiscal year 2008.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository depends on private donations - but partners with the city on food programs for the youth and elderly as well. Conwell credits "generous support" with helping the Depository to continue its food distribution. But that could change. If any legislative changes to the safety net food programs proposed in the 2013 Farm Bill go through, “we wouldn’t be able to cover the gap left behind,” he said.

On June 10, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the omnibus Farm Bill. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits were hard hit, with $4.1 billion in food stamp cuts proposed over the next 10 years.  The U.S. House version of the bill was stuck in the House due to disagreement over an amendment that would allow states to impose work requirements on those receiving SNAP.

“Quite simply, the lines at food pantries will just get longer,” Conwell said.

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