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Fewer people going hungry in Cook County, but many still need help

Thursday, May 04, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Greg Trotter

More people in Cook County had consistent access to food in 2015 than at the recession-related peak of food insecurity just a few years prior, according to Feeding America's annual Map the Meal Gap report released Thursday.

But there were still more than 660,000 people in the county lacking consistent access to food and, for them, their weekly budgetary shortfall continued to grow, a shift reflecting national trends highlighted in the report. National and state anti-hunger advocates say the report's findings are evidence that federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, must be preserved and supported.

And while businesses have been a consistent source of support for food banks, the shift toward online shopping and the decline of bricks-and-mortar stores could result in diminished donations in the years ahead.

"While we would like to see this as a sign of improvement, we're going to hold our optimism because hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are still in need. Our mission is to end hunger in Cook County and this shows how far we have to go," said Jim Conwell, spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

The report analyzes food insecurity in every county in the U.S. Nationally, the number of people facing food insecurity dropped from an estimated 50 million in 2009 to 42 million in 2015, the most recent data available, according to the report by Feeding America, a national anti-hunger coalition based in Chicago, which forms its analysis from census data and labor statistics.

Food security, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life."

In Cook County, the estimated 661,630 people in 2015 who lacked consistent and sufficient access to food represented a decrease of more than 23 percent from the apex of 860,670 in 2011, according to the report. In 2015, there were more than 203,000 children in the county facing food insecurity, the lowest number since the Great Recession.

While much of that improvement can be attributed to the economic recovery, credit must also be given to the federal food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said Craig Gundersen, lead researcher on the Feeding America report and professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

During the recession and in the years that followed, SNAP expanded to accommodate the increased number of people who needed food assistance. The program has come into the political crosshairs in recent years as some House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have sought to cut funding for entitlement programs and shift responsibility to states.

"Instead of criticizing (SNAP), let's praise it for saving millions of Americans from food insecurity," Gundersen said.

Donations from businesses — manufacturers, wholesalers and grocery retailers — have been a critical source of help for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Conwell said. Through the first nine months of this fiscal year, more than 26 million pounds of food were donated to the depository, the vast majority of it from businesses.

About 12 million pounds of food per year are donated from grocery stores.

"If the trend toward e-commerce reduces the total number of brick-and-mortar grocery stores and their overall inventory, that will mean fewer opportunities for donation," Conwell said.

And that could spell trouble when there's still enormous need in Cook County, particularly in low-income neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West sides. Despite the report's findings of fewer people with food insecurity, the food pantry at St. James Catholic Church in Bronzeville still serves about 1,700 families a month, which is about the same as before the recession, said Cathy Moore, the food pantry's director.

"It's not only about food insecurity. We give out clothes. We give out hygiene products. ... When you're talking about meeting the need, these are basic needs to be met. And no, the need is not down," Moore said.

Twitter @GregTrotterTrib

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