Restaurant worker relies on SNAP benefits to get by

Creative Commons photo by BORMAN818

Creative Commons photo by BORMAN818

Nataki Rhodes has worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade.

During those years, Rhodes has always earned the state’s minimum wage. Her paycheck isn't enough to cover rent, utilities, school supplies and groceries for herself and her son.

She relies on the $200 in food stamps she received each month to get by.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I want to be able to work and buy my food without having to go to the public aid office.”

The 41-year-old restaurant worker said she works hard, but her financial situation is dire. Her hands are callused and her feet hurt from working an eight-hour shift spent standing.

“It’s depressing,” she said. “I’m on food stamps at my age. I don’t let that deter me. I still get up and go to work. I’m not looking for a handout.”

Rhodes’ neighborhood has the second highest number of households receiving food stamps in Chicago.

Most of the people who receive food stamps in Chicago also work. Of the 117,225 households that received food stamps last year, only 4 percent of those households didn't have at least one person working, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Almost 24 percent of the households in Rhode’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood receive benefits through the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, according to the census data. That area also includes other South Side neighborhoods--West Englewood, Englewood and Washington Heights.

In order to make her SNAP dollars stretch, Rhode shops in several grocery stores. She looks for deals at places like Food 4 Less, Aldi and now that her son moved, she sometimes shops at Trader Joe’s.

After years of working low-wage jobs, Rhodes said she hasn't been able to get a good paying job. Hoping to change that, she earned her GED in 2011. But after the economic downturn, her current job cut her hours. She’s only working part time, earning $8.45 an hour as a line cook for a restaurant that provides food to many institutions in Chicago. Rhodes declined to name her employer, fearing she could lose her job.

This economic situation has taken a toll on Rhodes. She became depressed about her financial situation.

“I worked so much and I was never able to afford what I wanted,” she said.  “I wasn't able to support my family. I kept trying to get ahead, but I couldn't. I thought why am I struggling so much?”

Depression took over and she was admitted into a psychiatric ward in 2008, she said.

She feels better today, she said. Her son graduated from high school last year and he is attending Truman College. She hopes to enroll in a culinary program at Kennedy-King College on Chicago’s South Side.

She said it is important for people to know that people who receive food stamps are not just sitting at home.

“I’m going to work every day like everybody else,” she said. I’m just not getting enough money.”

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