Past Event

No food in the house: Hunger rises in Cook County

In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 49 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, are food insecure. Last week, in a look closer to home, the Greater Chicago Food Depository—in conjunction with Feeding America—released “Hunger in America 2010: Chicago Profile.” From 2006 to 2009, the report said, the number of county residents visiting food banks, soup kitchens and shelters jumped 36 percent.

The report also revealed:

 The face of hunger

  • About 37% of the people the Food Depository serves are under 18
  • 6% of clients are homeless
  • 34% of households include at least one employed adult
  • 44% receive SNAP/Food Stamp benefits
  • 22% report their main source of income is from a job

Demographic breakdown

  • 51% female
  • 49% male
  • 64% non-Hispanic black
  • 21% Latino or Hispanic
  • 12% non-Hispanic white

“More than 46 percent of clients served report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food; 39 percent said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food; 34 percent report having to choose between paying for medical bills and food; and 35 percent must choose between transportation and food,” the study reported.

The Hunger Task Force describes food insecurity as “a condition in which people lack basic food intake to provide them with the energy and nutrients for fully productive lives.” Hunger is defined as a condition in which people do not get enough food to provide the nutrients for fully productive, active lives.

Those who work on hunger issues say the recession is making access to sufficient nutrition a daily struggle. Kate Maehr, Executive Director of the Chicago Food Depository, told Crain’s Chicago Business that the increase in those seeking good assistance “is a reflection of the current state of our economy and having high unemployment in Cook County and across the state.”

But it’s not just urban communities in Cook County that are seeing a rise in food assistance. Maehr stated that Willow Creek Care Center and Food Pantry in Hoffman Estates reported the biggest rise in demand: an 85 percent increase in the number of visits in the past year. The Daily Herald, which covers northern suburbs, published a graphic showing that McHenry County showed an 84.2% increase in households served by food pantries, the greatest increase in the area. Next were Kane County with 33.9 percent, DuPage with 22.2 percent, Cook with 27.9 percent, and Lake with 13.9 percent.

H. Dennis Smith, director of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, told the Herald that the study also dispelled some myths. “Some people have a stereotype that people using the food pantries are just lazy and don’t want to work,” he said. “But 43 percent of the households include at least one employed adult.”

Based on interviews with pantry directors, the Herald also reported, “many of those underemployed who ask for food are first-time visitors to local food charities.” It’s not unusual, one township supervisor said, to see people drive up to a food pantry in a Lexus. “They were otherwise affluent before the economy turned,” Lake Villa Township Supervisor Dan Venturi told the paper.

The food banks represented by Feeding America, a Chicago-based network of 200 food banks, spend about $1 billion annually to supply tens of thousands of pantries and soup kitchens. The network is lobbying Congress to double the Agriculture Department’s $250 million annual budget for buying surplus commodities for charitable feeding programs.

After the report was released, Politics Daily columnist Linda Kulman wrote that Michelle Obama should focus attention on childhood hunger rather than childhood obesity, the First Lady’s first substantive policy issue. “Maybe the First Lady’s work needs to be two-fold: chipping away at childhood obesity by day and, over her family’s dinner each night, prodding her husband to push his new budget, which includes a $1 billion increase for child nutrition.”

How much evidence are you seeing of an increase in hunger around you? What measures can be taken to reverse the hunger trend? How can America’s food policies be reformed to address the rise in hunger? How can a country such as the U.S. have both an obesity epidemic and a growing hunger problem? What can local communities to do improve food access? Is it the federal government’s responsibility to do more to curb hunger? Why or why not? How food secure do you feel?

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