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After SNAP reduction, food demand spikes at central Illinois pantries

According to Midwest Food Bank, food demand is up 30% over last year, partly because expanded federal nutrition assistance expired last month.
WGLT file photo
According to Midwest Food Bank, food demand is up 30% over last year, partly because expanded federal nutrition assistance expired last month.

Demand for food, along with food insecurity, continues to increase despite a general easing of inflation.

According to the United Nations, over 350 million people worldwide are “marching towards starvation.” In the U.S., food inflation continues to run rampant with the average price of food rising by 9.5% in the past year. The U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as recently as last August, food inflation peaked at 11.4%, the highest since May 1979.

Those living in central Illinois are not immune from food insecurity. Tara Ingham, executive director of the Midwest Food Bank (MFB), which distributes food to dozens of area food pantries, said demand for food from their partner agencies has increased by 30% in 2023.

With benefits paid to low-income residents through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) returning to pre-pandemic levels in March, demand for food is only expected to increase this summer.

“Inflation and food costs are really reducing the buying power and adding to the limited resources in many households. Inflation is really challenging to those living near or below the poverty line, so people are having to make difficult choices on how to use their household budget. People have been turning to food pantries for support,” said Ingham.

In 2022, demand for food from MFB’s partner agencies increased 25%, said Ingham. This year, that number has jumped to 30%.

“Food demand definitely continues to be at an increased level,” she said.

Developing partnerships key to meeting demand

Ingham and the folks at the food bank are working to offset the increased demand with an increase in the recruitment of food donations, but it’s not an easy task. They’re looking to bolster existing partnerships and develop new relationships with private businesses and other organizations in order to reduce their food waste and redirect extra food to food banks.

“That (includes) reaching out to various food vendors and food producers and distributors to look for their excess or food they may need to offload, or tapping into special programs where farmers can donate their excess food,” Ingham said.

Existing food donation programs involving farmers include the Illinois Pork Producers Association’s (IPPA) Pork Power food donation program, Feeding Illinois’ farmer-led produce donation program and other, similar efforts by farm commodity organizations. IPPA’s Pork Power program reached a milestone of donating their one millionth pound of pork products to food pantries across the state in late 2022, said Jennifer Tirey, IPPA president.

Farmers Feeding Illinois, a program connecting an array of statewide agri-sourcing initiatives in support of Feeding Illinois food banks and their network of community agencies, encompasses initiatives to increase the supply of specialty crops, meats, dairy, eggs, and any other edible agricultural products — fresh or processed — throughout Illinois’ emergency food system.

Another Feeding Illinois food donation initiative, the Farm to Food Bank Program, seeks to connect food banks with farms to purchase products like fruits, vegetables, cheese, milk, meat, and eggs directly from farmers.

“These programs are all vital in sustaining folks in our community that are in need, and we are happy to partner with our local farmers and pork producers whenever possible. We are also happy to partner with local farmers to process food to distribute to local food banks,” said Ingham.

In response to the recent spike in demand for food pantry services, the University of Illinois Extension is stepping up its efforts to provide both food and essential non-food items for those families finding it harder to make ends meet. The Illinois Deer Donation Program was launched last year as a 12-county pilot program to fight food insecurity by matching hunters in east central Illinois with meat processors and food pantries.

Another Extension initiative, the Clean for a Cause campaign, encourages the donation of cleaning supplies to support families’ needs and give them the ability to have a healthy, clean indoor environment.

“Health for our families accessing pantries means more than food,” stated Shanita Wallace, health educator for the Tazewell County Health Department. “By providing access to important cleaning supplies, you can help to stretch a family’s funds so they can best support the well-being of their family.”

The Clean for a Cause campaign is administered by Extension’s Food Pantry Network - Heart of Illinois (HOI).

Relief on the way?

Some indicators suggest that food insecurity should improve in the coming months and years. After reaching a 40-year peak, general annual inflation in the U.S. subsided to 6% for the 12 months ending in February — after soaring to over 11% in 2022. Some economists predict that number will shrink to less than 2% before this time next year.

In addition, the unemployment rate in the U.S. edged down to 3.5% in March. The minimum wage in Illinois is rising yearly and will reach $15 per hour in 2025. And though SNAP benefits were slashed to pre-pandemic rates in March, normal SNAP benefit allocations increased by 12.5% in October 2022.

However, food insecurity is still very much an issue in central Illinois that is causing many working families to cut back on other essentials in order to put food on the table. To these families, there appears to be little to no relief on the horizon.

“While we don’t have that crystal ball to predict just what is going to happen, either way we are happy to be a part of the solution and honored to deliver our mission here at MFB.” said Ingham. “To put it in perspective, at the start of COVID, no one could have predicted that this severe (demand) increase would happen. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

To locate a food pantry, soup kitchen and other food relief sources in your area, Ingham recommends calling the United Way’s PATH 211 hotline.

MFB is seeking corporate partners and individuals to help fund local food relief programs. They also are in need of local volunteers to staff food pantries, pack and deliver food. Ingham or another MFB representative can be reached at www.midwestfoodbank.org.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.