JOLIET – Food can be so expensive for Yolanda Rent and her children that she sometimes has to choose between paying bills or paying for food.
That’s a choice Rent, of Joliet, and millions of other families nationwide must make in an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Helping those families get by are food pantries and government assistance programs, but sometimes it’s not enough.
According to hunger relief charity Feeding America’s 2014 four-year study, more than 46 million people in the U.S. receive food assistance through the charity’s network, which consists of food pantries, food banks, ministries and other organizations.
Rent works as a home and health care worker, and cares for four children by herself. She’ll shop at Aldi or other supermarkets offering low prices. And for more than three years, she also has relied on Joliet food pantries.
Providing enough food for her children is critical, Rent said.
“They’re going to act out in school and work and not be able to concentrate,” she said. “It’s very important they eat and have at least three square meals a day.”
Hunger in America
In the 13-county Northern Illinois region – which includes Will and Grundy counties – 590,400 people are served annually by the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Thirty-six percent of those served are children younger than age 18, followed by adults between the ages of 30 and 49.
Many struggle with poverty, health care costs, employment and housing. At least 66 percent of the households served by the Northern Illinois Food Bank have incomes that fall at or below the federal poverty level. Fifty-seven percent have unpaid medical bills.
They all face stress on their budgets that can starkly narrow their options between eating or paying for other necessities.
According to Northern Illinois Food Bank, 77 percent of households it serves reported having to choose between paying for food and utilities in the past year. About 69 percent had to choose between food and transportation.
Donna Lake, Northern Illinois Food Bank spokeswoman, said in many cases people are working, but their income is not enough to make ends meet. Other necessities, such as transportation, must be met.
The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but hunger issues persist, she said.
“It’s not a famine,” she said. “It’s not what you see on commercials showing people starving in Third World countries. Hunger is hidden. … We hide it much better because it’s not the same sort of physical outward symptoms.”
Rent said she started visiting food pantries three years ago, when food prices rose and her children entered school. Nothing is getting cheaper and the price of meat is “outrageous,” she said.
Lake, along with several people who run food pantries in Will County – such as the Harvey Brooks Foundation, Second Baptist Church and Spanish Community Center – say more people need assistance because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
“I have a lot of people who do work, but they don’t make enough to feed their family,” said Greg Brown, food pantry coordinator at Joliet-based Second Baptist Church.
In Will County, 56,706 residents are living in poverty and 32,684 of them are unemployed, according to Northern Illinois Food Bank.
In September, the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center said in a report that the national poverty rate last year was down compared to 2012, but remains higher than pre-recession levels.
New state data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed “no progress has been made in the fight against poverty since last year,” according to the report. In 2013, 1.85 million Illinois residents lived in poverty.
Brown said the number of people coming to the Second Baptist Church food pantry has slowed, but the church still sees more than before the recession.
Rent works as a food pantry volunteer for All Nation Church of God in Christ in Joliet. She said she has seen more people visiting the food pantries in the past six months than in the past.
Some, such as senior citizens, either do not get government assistance or do not get enough, she said. They cannot afford food.
“A lot of elderly people come over there and they always complain about not getting enough food stamps to keep their shelves stocked,” she said.
In Will County, 66,380 residents are at risk of hunger and almost 32,526 are ineligible for public benefits, according to Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Lake said hunger issues never stand alone.
Housing, utility costs, health care and employment all contribute to the problem. Feeding America is trying to build relationships with other organizations and food pantries nationwide to provide more than just food, including skills such as job training.
Brown said continued investment is needed in food pantries, which fill in the gaps in people’s food budgets. Monica Vasquez, Spanish Community Center immigration director, said many people, especially senior citizens, still need public aid to help buy food.
“When you’re a single mom and your husband gets up and leaves … where do they go? When you’re retired on a fixed income and your [food] stamps get cut, where do you go?” she said.
Rent said food pantries are essential.
“People’s situations change every day. A lot of people lost their jobs or don’t get food stamps who do come to these pantries and who are working families and need these pantries to make ends meet,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Northern Illinois Food Bank 2014 Statistics
• Number of people served: 590,400 annually, or 71,500 weekly
• Number of households with incomes that fall at or below federal poverty level: 66 percent
• Number of households with unpaid medical bills: 57 percent
• Number of households with a member who worked for pay in the past year: 77 percent
• Number of households that had to choose between paying for food or utilities in the past year: 77 percent
• Number of people who live in non-temporary housing: 96 percent
• Number of people with a high school or general equivalency diploma: 78 percent
• Number of people with some college experience, a technical degree or college degree: 30 percent
• Number of households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits: 53 percent