As Ruth Poole-Rivera's family adjusts to losing about $233 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, she plans to extend as many staple foods as rice and beans as she can.
Even with an emergency ration of SNAP benefits keeping him and other recipients afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, he continues to visit Sheridan Market Nourishing Hope's food pantry once a month. Now, he is considering whether he should start making weekly trips from his home in Chatham.
“You do what you have to do,” Poole-Rivera said of feeding her household, including grandchildren and parents. “I did. God provides.”
He's among the more than 2 million Illinois residents who saw a change in their SNAP benefits—a program formerly known as food stamps—this month. Emergency rations that began in April 2020 as part of the COVID-19 relief effort ended in February.
The change comes as more Cook County residents rely on federal programs. In January, there were 966,163 Cook County residents enrolled in the program compared to 914,700 in January 2022, according to data from the Illinois Department of Human Services. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there were 846,385 Cook County residents enrolled in the program as of January 2019.
At Nourishing Hope, the Chicago-based organization is helping individuals during the coronavirus pandemic apply to SNAP who are eligible for the first time or who may receive additional benefits, said Jennie Hull, chief program officer.
“Things haven't gotten any better for people over the last three years,” Hull said. “And then you pull out this safety net for the people they've come to rely on. We're just concerned about how it will impact people who need our services. We're already seeing an increase in the number of people, and how many more are we going to see that need that support now.”
At the Breakthrough Fresh Market on the city's West Side, the organization plans to return to its pre-pandemic ration of asking clients to visit the food pantry once a month. But as demand continues, they've decided to continue allowing people to visit the pantry more than once a month regardless of where they live, said Cheron Massonburg, the program's chief officer.
“It's really a disservice when you have this kind of ‘desert food' in a space like Garfield Park,” says Massonburg, considering the recent grocery store closures in the area. “So it's really important to us that the individuals who live in these neighborhoods and these communities have access to food.”
On a recent Thursday morning, more than a dozen people waited outside the pantry for about an hour before it opened.
It was the first time Willie Mitchell, 62, of Garfield Park, had visited the food pantry since the coronavirus pandemic. He expects to see a drop in his SNAP profits, though he's unsure of the exact numbers.
He wants emergency rations to continue especially since he can only eat certain foods for health reasons.
“Chicken high, everything goes up — even the vegetables,” says Mitchell. “That's why I actually came here – I need some vegetables.”
For Israel Munoz, 73, of Humboldt Park, he saw his SNAP profit drop from $345 to $281. She recently visited the Breakthrough Fresh Market, and she thought she should find another pantry to visit as she tries to stretch her groceries to also help feed her grandchildren and children.
“This is very helpful,” Munoz said in Spanish of the emergency rations he received. “You buy on the 7th, like yesterday or the day after, and it's done. Not even a month because food is expensive.”
The Irving Park Community Food Pantry stocks essentials like shampoo, detergent and women's products so their clients can save more money on food and on bills, says John Psiharis, executive director. They also encourage residents to take advantage of the donated pet food that the pantry receives.
“The timing of the SNAP drop is not the best because people are paying more and more,” said Psiharis. “Food prices are high and then suddenly the prices are lower on SNAP so they are less able to deal with the rising prices, which means our numbers will continue to increase as people look for alternatives.”
Ana Al Saad, who volunteers at the Irving Park Food Pantry, signed up for SNAP benefits during the coronavirus pandemic after her husband saw his job cut. His family of five is prepared to lose about $300 in their SNAP benefits, he said.
He said families would probably cut back on meat while continuing to shop at the pantry once a month.
“They helped us a lot, and I think it's OK,” Al Saad said of the SNAP emergency rations. “It would be great if they could do it again in the future.”
Michael Nolan, 57, of Portage Park, received an additional $95 in SNAP profits during the pandemic, and he likes how the funds roll over enough that it will get him through the end of the month. He thinks recipients should receive more funds given the rise in food prices.
“Now that that's gone, I really needed to come here where it used to be maybe a bit optional,” Nolan said of going to the food pantry. “Now it is a necessity.”
Elvia Malagón's reporting on social justice and income inequality was made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.