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High demand at food banks belies economic recovery statistics

Cathy Moore coordinator St. James Food Pantry 29th   Wabash checks sacks food thhave been filled prepare for distributimaking

Cathy Moore, coordinator of the St. James Food Pantry at 29th & Wabash, checks sacks of food that have been filled to prepare for distribution, making sure they contain a balance of the four food groups. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

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Updated: May 7, 2014 6:12AM

Down the sidewalk and across the street, the food pantry queue, three to five people deep, snaked outside Chosen Tabernacle Ministries in Grand Boulevard.

Inside, Pastor Sandra Gillespie marshaled her troop of volunteers into a well-oiled machine, distributing canned and boxed foods, frozen meats and produce, lovingly but quickly.

Chosen Tabernacle would help 225 hungry poor that day — some unemployed, some working.

“Our numbers are through the roof. In the last six months, I’ve experienced an 18 percent increase in clients,” Gillespie said. “Even through those ridiculously cold days, they were lined up.”

Food pantries nationwide are reporting spikes in demand, following year-end cuts to federal programs enacted during the recession that began in December 2007 and ended — technically, anyway — in June 2009.

Recent indicators signal a U.S. economy on its way to recovery, but Gillespie’s indicators show a different picture.

“Food stamps have been cut. Unemployment insurance is non-existent. Winter heating bills went through the roof, and now food prices are going up,” she said. “I anticipate our pantry surpassing 300 people a week easily this summer. How are we going to meet that need?”

In November, Congress ended a temporary boost to food stamp benefits provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That decreased monthly food stamp benefits — officially, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — by $11 for individuals; for a family of three, the cut was $29.

Congress also in December ended the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, with efforts to renew those extended benefits for the nation’s 3.8 million long-term unemployed long stalled. Despite last week’s 61-35 Senate vote clearing a major hurdle, there is little support in the House for the measure.

Add a harsh winter to those policies, and the outlook is grim that those worst hit by the recession will see the fruits of economic recovery anytime soon, said the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes food to Chosen Tabernacle and 650 area pantries and anti-hunger programs.

“All those factors and continued high unemployment helped to keep the need high at pantries this winter, and we don’t expect to see a decrease,” Depository spokesman Jim Conwell said.

Pantries in at least 15 other states and Washington, D.C. face bigger problems, under a secondary cut in SNAP benefits enacted in February under the 2014 farm bill. The bill closed a loophole those states used for consideration of utility expenses in SNAP eligibility.

Economists, however, say all signs point to a U.S. recovery.

The national unemployment rate remained at 6.7 percent in March and February, with January’s unemployment level of 6.6 percent lowest since October 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. Unemployment has continued to drop from its high of 10 percent in 2010.

March saw 192,000 jobs added, following 175,000 in February — a good sign after the weak job gains of January and December, when 113,000 and 75,000 jobs respectively were created, economists say; those weaker numbers were attributed to the weather.

And consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, inched up 0.3 percent in February. Incomes rose at the same pace, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. January also saw increases in income (0.3 percent) and spending (0.2 percent).

But the recovery didn’t stop 5.5 million people from coming to pantries in Cook County for food last year — the highest number in Chicago Food Depository history.

“It’s going to take a lot of support from all sectors to keep up with the continued high need,” Conwell said, speaking at the agency’s 42nd & Pulaski warehouse as it hummed with members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and other volunteers sorting and repacking food.

Once primarily serving the poor or down and out, pantries continue to see a changing demographic. Clients now include those like James Sewell, 47, of Bronzeville, who was getting food recently at Gillespie’s pantry, located at 4310 S. Champlain.

“I support my mother, a senior citizen who is on 24-hour oxygen, and my son and niece who are in school. I don’t make enough,” says the maintenance technician. Downsized two years ago from a job installing appliances for Sears, he has been unable to find work in his field.

“I have a college degree. I have an honorable discharge from the military. I am a certified welder. I’ve been trying to get into the Iron Workers Union for the last five years, but in Chicago, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” said Sewell.

Pantries also are still seeing huge numbers of long-term unemployed — those seeking work for more than six months — who comprise 37 percent of the unemployed population. Only 11 percent of them are able to find full-time work within a year, according to a Princeton University study released last month.

Visiting Chicago last week, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen cited the long-term unemployed in noting that recent positive economic indicators may be deceptive. “The recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans,” said Yellen, noting Illinois had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent in February; Chicago, 9.5 percent; and the greater Chicago area, 8.5 percent.

Area pantries agree. Many are preparing crisis plans to meet a tidal wave expected as warmer weather breaks.

“We’d have to reduce how often families can come, give people less food, or just run out of food for the day,” said Rachel Jumpa, director of the Berwyn Christian Life Center Food Pantry, which has seen a spike in clientele from seven western suburbs. “It’s not a great feeling to have to turn away a hungry family. It’s too bad what’s happening to people with this economy.”


Twitter: @Maudlynei

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