On Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, the first snowfall of the season swept across Chicagoland. Inside a warm corridor of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, more than 130 veterans lined up for the first distribution of a new food pantry — many wearing military attire and combat medals indicating their service to our country.
It was a proud, yet sobering, day for the Greater Chicago Food Depository: proud because a strong partnership with the VA and AmeriCorps made the pantry a reality, sobering because a new food pantry for veterans is necessary in our community. More than 18,000 veterans in Cook County are living below the poverty level. And veterans aren’t alone. Food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across our community are in higher demand now than they have ever been in the 34-year history of the Food Depository.
This holiday season, 1 in 6 people in our community faces hunger every day. Food pantries in Cook County are serving 68 percent more individuals than they were five years ago. These numbers were all recorded before the Nov. 1 reduction to all SNAP (food stamp) benefits caused by the expiration of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Households that relied on food stamps to put meals on the table now have between $11 and $36 less to make it through each month.
For a family of four, $36 less for groceries might not seem like much. But for a family struggling to get by, that $36 can be a bag of oranges, peanut butter and jelly, a bunch of bananas, broccoli, carrots, celery, canned beans, pasta, rice, cans of soup and a bag of potatoes. The impact is real and it hurts families in need. More and more people will be turning to nonprofit organizations for help.
This scenario leaves hunger-relief organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository and our member agencies deeply concerned about what’s next. The need for food assistance is at a record high, but it could very easily get higher. And the federal nutrition safety net could be damaged further as Congress debates versions of the Farm Bill that include up to $40 billion in SNAP cuts. We are proud of our daily impact on hunger, but we’re also realistic. Nonprofit organizations cannot end hunger alone.
Hunger in our community is too often an invisible problem. It is a child who cannot focus in school because her stomach is empty; it is an older adult who must choose between medicine and food; it is a working parent who skips dinners after the mortgage and utilities are paid. Every day, hungry people ride the train with us, sit in traffic with us, pay their taxes and send their children to school. They do everything right, but they simply don’t have enough food to eat.
Hunger affects vulnerable individuals and families in Palatine and Tinley Park, in West Pullman and Evanston, in Lake View, Berwyn and all neighborhoods in between. Hunger limits the academic and physical development of our children, cripples the potential of our work force and raises health care costs for all.
The reality of hunger in our community is sobering, but the opportunity is in front of us to ensure every family has a meal this holiday season. We can do this by advocating for strong federal nutrition programs, giving to food drives, making donations to hunger relief and rallying around our common belief that no one — not a child, a mother, a father, a grandparent or a veteran — should ever go hungry.
Kate Maehr is Executive Director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Chicago’s food bank. Visit www.chicagosfoodbank.org for more information.