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updated: 11/11/2013 2:32 PM

Food stamp cuts may increase need at food pantries

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  • Darlene Sobczyk of East Dundee loads a client's cart with more canned goods last Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. "It is pretty scary for us," said Mary Graziano, president of the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville, of the recent reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "It is going to affect us horribly."

       Darlene Sobczyk of East Dundee loads a client's cart with more canned goods last Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. "It is pretty scary for us," said Mary Graziano, president of the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville, of the recent reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "It is going to affect us horribly."
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteers Dani Scudder, left, and Vivian Nockels work to fill orders for clients at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. Scudder is from Plainfield, and a student at Joliet Catholic Academy, performing service hours as part of a school requirement. Nockels is from Algonquin.

       Volunteers Dani Scudder, left, and Vivian Nockels work to fill orders for clients at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. Scudder is from Plainfield, and a student at Joliet Catholic Academy, performing service hours as part of a school requirement. Nockels is from Algonquin.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Juice boxes are added to a client's cart Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville.

       Juice boxes are added to a client's cart Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer John Konitzer of Algonquin brings a shopping cart to the next station as he and other volunteers fill the orders of clients Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. Food pantry volunteers anticipate increased demand in the coming weeks due to food stamp cuts which began Nov. 1.

       Volunteer John Konitzer of Algonquin brings a shopping cart to the next station as he and other volunteers fill the orders of clients Friday at FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. Food pantry volunteers anticipate increased demand in the coming weeks due to food stamp cuts which began Nov. 1.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

 

On Nov. 1, the first shoe dropped when Congress reduced the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which helps feed millions of unemployed or underpaid Americans.

The second one will hit the floor in the coming weeks when volunteers who provide food for those families are greeted with longer lines at their food pantry and soup kitchen doors.

Waiting for the "thud" is just as frightening as hearing it, said volunteer Fox Valley food providers. The financial cushion that SNAP provided controlled demand and allowed volunteers to provide meals for local residents who were not eligible for the food stamps it allowed.

"It is pretty scary for us," said Mary Graziano, president of the FISH Food Pantry in Carpentersville. "It is going to affect us horribly."

Before the beginning of this month, FISH volunteers had been giving food to more than 540 needy families a month. It is too soon to tell how many more Dundee Township residents will be asking for help to feed their husbands, wives, and children.

"(The reduction in the SNAP program) will hit us pretty drastically," said Maj. John Miller, who works at the Salvation Army's food pantry in St. Charles. "Right now, we're giving out 800 bags a food a month. That amount is up from the 500 bags of food we used to give out monthly before the program's reduction."

The cuts could not have come at a worse time -- winter -- for families struggling to pay their utilities, mortgages and transportation costs, he said.

"When it comes to bills, people have to make hard choices. Do I pay my electricity and heating bills, or do I buy food?" he said. "In the summer, they could have gone without electricity and heat because it was warm and lighter during the evening. Then, they could use the money they saved for food.

"With winter coming, their priorities shift. They need electricity, and they need heat. Their food budgets are going to suffer. We serve the Tri-Cities area (of Batavia, St. Charles, and Geneva). Everyone assumes that people here have money to pay their bills. There are families here who are struggling just like everyone else in the country. "

The $80 billion SNAP plan was enacted to take the struggle out of paying living expenses when the housing market, stock market, and job market collapsed in 2008. It was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal lawmakers approved a year later.

The stimulus broadened the requirements for financial aid and allowed 47.6 million Americans to receive food stamps. It was scheduled to expire on Nov. 1. When it did, $5 billion was trimmed from the program, decreasing an average of 5 percent for each person receiving its benefits.

A family of four persons now receives $36 less per month. Others will lose their food supplement benefits completely.

As a result, the challenge to feed people who are underpaid or unemployed from the Great Recession will shift from federal lawmakers to local volunteers.

The FISH pantry in Carpentersville and the Salvation Army Center in St Charles, like many pantries, depend on money and food donations to provide the food.

"We have been fortunate because we have been able to exist on donations of local organizations," Miller said. "Our neighbors have always generously donated to our pantry."

The Salvation Army in St. Charles has a reserve fund. Volunteers will have no choice but to use that fund to meet the growing demand for food. If it is used faster than volunteers can raise more money, the pressure to meet the demand will be greater.

"We live in a day and age where people have to make tough choices," Miller said. "They can do without the Internet or cable television at home, but when it goes beyond that, they will have to swallow their pride and say, 'I need help.'"

FISH volunteers in Carpentersville are already making that plea. Along with their food donations, they need $8,000 monthly to buy some items, such as eggs and cheese, which are not usually donated. They buy some food from local grocery stores and some from the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva.

The bank sells food to pantries as well as to senior citizens centers, soup kitchens and school nutrition programs.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank is already expecting to provide more food for increased orders, said Donna Lake, the organization's communications director.

In 15 Northern Illinois counties, not including Cook, the bank provides meals for 60,000 people weekly. In the weeks and months after SNAP's cuts, that amount most likely will become significantly more.

"Many times, food budgets are the last things that families give attention to," Lake said. "They need roofs over their heads, and they need gas for their cars to get to work. Food budgets are going to suffer."

Knowing that it will become an everyday challenge for many more people, pantry volunteers in Carpentersville are changing their focus this month, Graziano said.

"We are not concentrating on Thanksgiving or the other (winter) holidays. We're concentrating on everyday needs. We won't be giving out turkeys; we have no room to store turkeys. They take up a lot of room."

Residents who want to donate turkeys to their neighbors are urged to donate grocery store gift cards to food pantries, she said.

"These (SNAP) cuts really scare me," she said.

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