Food stamp use nearly doubles in suburbs

SPRINGFIELD — As suburban workers over the last several years have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, some people who used to volunteer at the Northern Illinois Food Bank have ended up on the other side of the line asking for help.

People who were barely getting by have been hit with increased gas prices and other costs, and keeping up has been tough, says Donna Lake, spokeswoman for the St. Charles-based food bank.

“It's people who were scraping by to begin with,” Lake said.

Data from the state clearly show that hunger in the suburbs is on the rise as use of food stamps has nearly doubled in some parts of the region in the last five years.

Since 2006, the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps and administered via Link cards, has seen a rise in the number of people in the program in an average month by 46 percent in Cook County, 133 percent in DuPage County, 84 percent in Lake County, 96 percent in Kane County, 168 percent in McHenry County and 74 percent in Will County.

“It's easy to assume hunger is an urban problem,” said Lake, whose food bank serves 13 counties. “But the fact of the matter is, hunger is everywhere.”

In the suburbs, the increase in food stamps use could be the result of previously middle-income families getting caught by a tough break, said Jennifer Yonan, a vice president of the United Way of Lake County.

When a family is already barely making ends meet, a medical problem, a relative in need or another immediate expense could push it into requiring assistance.

“Just one little thing can make that all fall apart,” Yonan said.

To qualify for food stamps, a household has to meet certain income requirements. A family of four, for example, must have a gross monthly income of less than $2,389 to qualify.

As more Illinoisans begin to fit that description, state officials expect the need for food assistance to continue to rise.

The Illinois unemployment rate has hovered around 9 percent, but that number doesn't include all of those who have just quit looking for work. And some people who get new jobs don't make as much as at the job where they were laid off.

“We have a lot of households that work,” said Jan Freeman, Illinois' SNAP director.

The increased cost of the program doesn't hit the state. Food stamps are paid for by the federal government.

But the state shares responsibility for managing the program, and with a state budget crisis curtailing hiring, someone applying for food stamps might see a delay of around a month before getting help.

Freeman says it's a workload problem, not the fault of employees.

“Our staff is doing a good job out there,” Freeman said.

Some people won't ask for help until they're in dire need, Lake said. She encourages people to ask for assistance when they qualify.

Food, she says, is one expense people might skimp on as long as possible to cover mortgage and utility payments and pay for gasoline.

“I don't think they're used to asking for that help,” Lake added. “I'm sure for some people it's hard to come the first time.”

Local farmers markets try to reach needy with Link card