Food appreciation is a hobby. Chefs are rock-star famous. Grocery stores carry exotic items once only available in restaurants. Blogs are devoted to every kind of cuisine. “Food porn” glamorizes images of food. In fact, so many people call themselves “foodies,” some chefs and critics are shunning the word.
At the same time, talk about food has gone deeper with a rising public consciousness about where it comes from and how it is grown. The organic food market is thriving. There is a sustainable food movement. Concern about nutrition is prevalent.
Yet, nearly one in six Americans faces hunger. According to the most recent statistics available from Feeding America, about 15 percent of Illinoisans live with food insecurity, struggling sometime during the year to get the food they need. Children in Illinois are worse off, with one in five not having enough to eat. “There’s a lot of attention being paid to food. It’s more important in our culture, in a high-value way, than it was before,” says Terri Nally, director of Feeding Illinois, the state food bank association. “Here we are this superpower nation on Earth, and juxtaposed to that, we have nearly 2 million people in our state who go to bed hungry.”
About 700,000 of those hungry are children, and they live in every county in Illinois — urban, suburban, rural, wealthy and poor. There have been efforts in Illinois to better serve the hungry, especially children, through a statewide initiative by the Illinois Commission to End Hunger. But those on the front lines say more needs to be done if the state is to thrive.
Nationally, the prevalence of food insecurity has increased steadily from 2000, when the overall rate was 10.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Illinois’ issues are exacerbated by a persistently high unemployment rate, at 8.7 percent in December and the fourth highest in the nation. Poverty rates also affect hunger. In 2012, about six percent of Illinoisans, or 768,000, lived in extreme poverty with incomes below half of the poverty line (below $9,545 for a family of three), according to a report by the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty. That number is down from 823,000 in 2010 but up from 607,000 in 2008.
“It’s not just in the city of Chicago and not just in rural areas in southern Illinois; it really is to some degree in all areas of the state,” says Larry Joseph, director of the fiscal policy center at Voices for Illinois Children. “Food insecurity is a significant problem in Illinois, and there has been increased need over the last five years.”
The hungry who qualify based on their income and expenses can receive help through 17 different food assistance programs funded by the federal government and administered by state agencies. In 2010, $3.4 billion in federal dollars came to Illinois, with the bulk of the money, 63 percent, going to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.
But increased demand on the state’s safety net — its network of private programs including food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens — really provides a picture of how vulnerable many Illinoisans are to hunger insecurity. Such programs saw a 17 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 but experienced a 73 percent increase over the previous three years during the recession. In 2010, 127 million pounds of food were served to 1.4 million Illinoisans. Food banks report even more of an increased need for their services since SNAP benefits were reduced in November, a result of the expiration of the federal stimulus package that increased payments to spur the economy.
Bob Russell, a single father of four teens living on Chicago’s south side, relies on his local food pantry to keep the bulk of his family meals from being beans and rice. On disability since falling ill after his wife died, Russell’s SNAP benefits dropped about $50 a month to $268. Based on income and expenses, the maximum monthly SNAP benefits for a family of four dropped last fall from $668 to $632. For Russell’s family, the cut has meant buying powdered milk and less meat for his family.
He visits about eight different stores each month to stretch his dollars, a common habit for those using SNAP. “When I go grocery shopping, the security follows me around a lot because I go back and forth,” Russell says. “I shop the discount racks where stuff is marked down. If it’s got a bad smell, I don’t get it. It’s embarrassing, but you do what you have to do to survive.” Pasta is a good buy, but vegetables are a tougher purchase on a tight budget. He opts for vitamins over fresh produce, estimating it could eat up to a quarter of his food bill and not last very long.
Families like his, with a single parent, have the highest food insecurity rates, 23.6 percent for single men and 35.4 percent for single women, according to a 2012 report on household food security by the USDA. Families with young children under the age of 6 also are at greater risk of food insecurity, at 20.5 percent. That compares with married couples with children, at 13.2 percent, and those with no children, at 11.9 percent.
Those with very young children are particularly vulnerable to hunger insecurity. Since the SNAP cuts, workers with the Good Beginnings program who serve single mothers in the Peoria area have been picking up groceries at local food pantries for their families. “Very often, we find they don’t have enough food in the house,” says program director Victoria Thompson. “If parents are worried about how they are going to feed their family, then they can’t do anything else.” Staff members visit families with infants weekly up to one year and continue services for up to five years. They screen for child development, promote breast feeding and help families find resources to meet their needs.
Recently, an employee arrived at a family’s home to find a harried mother and six children with no food in the house. The employee went out and purchased groceries with her own money. “I know it crossed a lot of boundaries, but these were very hungry children. I would have done the same thing,” Thompson says. Parenting courses offered by Good Beginnings always include a meal, which often is the most filling meal the family has had that week.
Another hardship for families in the area is the move of a full-service grocery store from the south side of Peoria. The void leaves a food desert, a problem in many areas of the state from the inner city to rural locations. Families are left with the option of using limited resources to pay for public transportation, if it is available, or paying higher prices at convenience stores, which may not even sell adequate groceries. A single parent with young children finds such trips particularly difficult, Thompson says. “It’s quite a challenge,” she says. “People don’t know what they are going to do. They may find the only place to shop is a smaller operation with inflated prices.”
It’s not unusual to see children eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and drinking little barrels of sugar-flavored drinks when they arrive in the morning at Head Start at Educare Chicago, says Melinda Berry, senior family support supervisor. Parents call the drinks “juice,” and while there is little nutritional value in them, they are inexpensive and available, Berry says. A convenience store near Head Start has a grocery section carrying what is available in most similar stores in the area — liquor, cigarettes, chips and soft drinks. “Those aren’t groceries, but that’s what we’ve got,” Berry says. Her families spend up to a half hour on public transportation to get to a real grocery store and often go to several to make their money stretch.
Head Start does a lot of educating concerning food, teaching parents to read labels and offering cooking demonstrations on how to put together a nutritious, low-budget meal. Kids are fed breakfast, lunch and two snacks besides engaging in preschool lessons and activities. Berry knows good nutrition is key for children in her program. She recalls a 3-year-old boy, in and out of homelessness, who couldn’t stuff himself with enough food while at Head Start. “He felt desperate,” Berry says. “How are we going to work on his literacy and help him focus on getting settled if he is constantly looking for food? A child has to feel secure and full.”
Diana Rauner, president of Ounce of Prevention, worries about the impact of hunger on children younger than 5. She explains that 85 percent of the brain is built by age 2. “This is really building the foundation of the child’s brain at this point,” she says. “It’s not whether a child is hungry and can pay attention in school. It’s a child is hungry and can’t develop the architecture to build brain capacity. There is something more foundational in those first few years of life, and we can’t rebuild that.”
Intervention and aid are important tools used to combat poverty and food insecurity. But aid workers worry that many people in Illinois aren’t getting the help they need. About 32 percent of those who are food insecure in the state, as reported by Feeding America, rely solely on private help from food pantries and other programs. Most are underemployed, says Kristy Gilmore, manager of food and agency resources for the Central Illinois Food Bank in Springfield. “The most important thing to understand is the face of hunger is changing,” she says. “It could be someone sitting next to you in church who is suffering. We’re seeing people with part-time jobs who don’t have benefits. There are more elderly and children. People are struggling 365 days a year.”
Even those receiving money from programs such as SNAP hardly have enough to pay for a nutritious diet, says John Cook, associate professor of pediatrics for the Boston University School of Medicine and an expert on hunger. According to the USDA, a family of four with two adults and two children needed $585 a month to afford a nutritious thrifty food plan and $766 a month for a low-cost plan in November of last year. The maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four is $632, but the average is $532 a month, Cook says. Further, he says, because poverty is determined using an antiquated method that doesn’t take into account the high cost of housing, for instance, it is underestimated. “Poverty measures don’t reflect the actual measure of need,” Cook says.
The value of programs such as SNAP should be measured in other ways — how they improve health, for instance, he says. “There is a misconception that [food insecurity] really doesn’t matter, that bad things happen to everyone now and then,” Cook says. “But it’s all around us, and it’s harming our possibilities for a prosperous future.” The cost of chronic diseases like diabetes far outweighs the cost of SNAP benefits, he says. And besides contributing to the healthy development of children, access to nutritious food also makes a child’s home life less stressful, leading to more positive brain development.
Studies also have shown that child abuse is more prevalent in households that struggle for food. “Children in food-insecure households have a higher level of behavioral problems in school,” Cook says. “Food insecurity is basically handicapping children and keeping them from reaching their potential, and that has tremendous impacts in the community and on society. It’s a drag on the entire economy.”
Another issue is whether people who are eligible for help are receiving enough of it or any at all. A major goal of the Commission to End Hunger is to increase access to federal and state assistance programs by seamlessly offering services to those in need, whether programs are funded by federal, state, local or private means. Also, the commission is working to increase access to quality nutritious foods.
One initiative involves training workers at food pantries to help families sign up for SNAP benefits online. “When families receive benefits, they are less dependent on the food pantry, and that puts less strain on us,” says Steven McCullough, vice president of community partnerships with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. With the recent SNAP cuts, McCullough is hearing that there has been about a 12 percent increase in demand on his agency’s services. “Any cut has a ripple effect in the economy,” he says. When people have less money to spend in stores located in impoverished areas, stores don’t do as well and have a harder time staying open.
The commission also has worked to increase the number of schools offering breakfast to kids as part of the 2012 Illinois No Kid Hungry Campaign. During the 2011-2012 school year, 790,000 Illinois school children qualified for free or reduced lunches and breakfasts, but only 44.3 percent of those eligible received breakfast, either because it wasn’t offered or they chose not to participate, the Food Research and Action Center reported. Still, that participation was an increase of 20 percent over the previous school year. Because the program is federally funded, Illinois’ schools lose millions of dollars in aid by not serving breakfast.
Private programs also have their work cut out for them. While seeing an increased demand, food pantries statewide have had a tougher time collecting donations. Manufacturers became more efficient during the recession, resulting in less waste and fewer products to donate. Mislabeled products used to be a staple in food pantries but now are hard to come by, McCullough says. At the same time, food banks are working to make sure families are getting the food they need, not just donations. In central Illinois, the food bank is purchasing staple goods such as cereal to make sure it is available. Meanwhile, the Chicago food bank has made a commitment that 30 percent of its distributions are fresh produce. “We realize there’s an intersection between food and health,” he says.
Nally of Feeding Illinois is optimistic about the future. She notes that organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics are taking on poverty and hunger. The AAP has convened a leadership work group to study the health effects of child poverty. Also, she sees the possibility of tapping Illinois’ farmers to capture their surplus crops or even grow needed produce to distribute through food banks. Such programs exist in Ohio and Michigan. With a growing awareness of need and groups coming together to combat hunger, Nally thinks real, productive solutions are coming.
“Because of the economic slowdown, because of the recession and barriers in having a quick recovery, we’ve seen nearly every neighborhood with people who are suffering from food insecurity,” Nally says. “In order to have a vibrant economy, we have to have healthy people, and if we don’t have access to nutritious food, we don’t have that.”
Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based free-lance writer.
Illinois Issues, March 2014