Lakeview Food Pantry

Lakeview Food Pantry — photo by yooperann (flickr)

One of the biggest ways that government fights hunger is through food stamps, officially known as SNAP. These days, you get a card that you can use to buy groceries. It’s a direct cash subsidy that can only be used to buy food.

This fall has been full of bad news for people who depend on SNAP to feed themselves and their families.  On November 1st, food stamp extensions from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) expired. The cuts have ranged from $11 a month for an individual, to $36 a month for a family of four. That comes out to about one less meal a week. More cuts may be on the way.

Another way we use the safety net to fight hunger is to feed people directly. That’s what food pantries and soup kitchens are all about. Food pantries are actually run by small non-profits, and one of their primary sources of food and funding is the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD).

Chicago residents are now looking for food through food pantries to make up for the money they’re not getting through SNAP. At Purple Binder, we are able to get a sense of the need for different services in the city by looking at what people are searching for on our site. As you might expect, the number of searches for food has skyrocketed.

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Searches for food on Purple Binder Chicago, summer and fall 2013

Here in Chicago, the city itself as well as private charities are stepping up to meet the need. In partnership with Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, the Greater Chicago Food Depository has stocked 100 food pantries to help meet the emergency need. (You can see a full list of these food pantries here, just click the “Food” tab on the right.)

However, the cuts may go even further. Congress is currently debating further reductions to the food stamp program, which will probably go into effect next year. If the new cuts go into effect, “the City, non profits and GCFD combined cannot fill the gap,” says Steven McCullough, Vice President of Community Partnerships at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Map of food insecurity in Cook County (Source: GCFD)

Map of food insecurity in Cook County (Source: GCFD)

As SNAP benefits are cut, people are turning to GCFD and other charitable organizations to meet a need that was formerly provided by the federal government. Which raises an interesting question: whose job is it, and whose job should it be, to ensure that people do not go hungry in our communities?

As Chicagoans get a better real-time picture of the need in our city, we hope that this question will come up more often. We believe that by making the demand for social services more visible, we can make that need less abstract, and encourage dialogue about the proper response. We don’t know whether this is a problem that should be tackled by the government or by private philanthropy, but we sincerely hope that as a city, we are able to make sure no one goes hungry.

(By the way – if you care about the increase in hunger in our city, and would like to make a donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, you can do so here. They also accept food donations.)

More resources on hunger: