By Pam G. Dempsey , CU-CitizenAccess.org, and Jim Meadows, Illinois Public Media/ Kenneth Nelsen made his way around the Blue Ridge Township Town Hall in Mansfield, picking up canned food and produce as part of the monthly food pantry sponsored there by Mansfield United Methodist Church.
His visit in May to the Martha’s Cupboard Food Pantry was his fifth time and as of now, his only consistent source of food.
“I kind of have to ration things out,” said Nelsen, a 22-year-old construction worker who can’t find a job.
Nelsen is one of nearly 2 million statewide who are “food insecure” - defined as those who do not have the money or resources to regularly get the food they need.
America’s growing hunger problem has netted a lot of attention lately with the release of two studies.
One study came from Feeding America, the nation’s largest food charity, launched its “Map the Meal Gap” project, which analyzed federal income data and food costs to better identify those who are “food insecure.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also released a new mapping tool that helps identify geographic areas with low access to large grocery stores or supermarkets that offer affordable and nutritious food or what’s known as “food deserts.”
But East Central Illinois’ larger problem is “food insecurity” rather than food deserts, said Craig Gundersen who worked on the “Map the Meal Gap” project.
The most serious concern facing East Central Illinois is people not having enough food to eat and not being able to buy more food, he said.
“Food deserts really only make a difference if someone cannot access food,” such as a poor person without a vehicle, Gundersen said.
Gundersen is an associate professor in the University of Illinois in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and executive director of the National Soybean Research Lab. His research focuses mainly on food insecurity and food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp program. He is also the lead researcher on the “Map the Meal Gap” project.
But “food insecurity” is not only limited to those in poverty.
Of the food insecure population statewide, 60 percent have incomes above the income limit for SNAP benefits, according to data from the “Map the Meal Gap” project.
In fact, people who have been poor for an extended period of time “may have a better sense of how to live on a more limited income,” Gundersen said.
The recent economic downturn has shoved otherwise middle-class families into food insecurity – where food insecurity might come on the heels of a job loss, decline in wages, or foreclosure, he said.
This is why public and private food assistance programs are so important, Gundersen said, yet many still find assistance, like the SNAP program, tough to navigate and therefore, a barrier to alleviate hunger.
“It’s really hard to sign up for SNAP,” Gundersen said, citing the detailed and lengthy application process and the stigma that is associated by some with participating in SNAP.
Nelsen knows this first-hand.
The closest place he says he can find to apply for SNAP benefits is about 60 miles away – in Sullivan.
“I can’t get there,” he said. “I don’t have a vehicle, I don’t have anybody that has the spare time to go there for an appointment they set up on a whim. There’s really no point for me to try …but I think here before too long I’m going to have to try again because I can’t make it on just once-a-month food pantry.”
Nelsen said he had a run of bad luck last year and with no jobs in his line of work – construction – he has picked up odd jobs such as working security to help make ends meet.
Mansfield also lacks a large grocery store so when Nelsen does have extra money to buy food, he usually visits the Mansfield General Store.
“Prices are outrageous there in comparison to Wal-Mart and Aldi’s but in a way, it averages out having to try and find a ride and pay gas money for someone to go into town and grab a few things that I need,” he said.
The Mansfield General Store has been around since 1896 and offers a variety of goods – such as a food counter, ice-cream shop, video rentals, gifts and groceries. They also accept SNAP benefits.
The store isn’t the main place people come to buy food, said owner Susan Thomas, who runs the general store with her husband, Terry.
“Around here, a lot of people work in Champaign and they pick (food) up on their way home,” she said.
“We don’t have the buying power (like Wal-Mart or County Market) because we are just a fill-in,” Thomas said. “People don’t do their weekly shopping here.”
Because Thomas can’t buy in bulk or rotate stock like larger grocery stores, keeping prices low can be difficult as can keeping fresh produce on the shelves.
“We also need to survive,” she said.
Lack of access to food is more of a problem in rural areas than in urban ones, said Brandon Meline, director of maternal and child health management at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
Rural residents have a harder time buying fresh produce on a daily basis and instead, may limit their shopping to once a week, he said.
“I don’t think we have a lot of people in (Champaign-Urbana) that have barriers to getting to a grocery store,” Meline said, but “research shows people travel to the closet food option versus taking two hours out of their busy days to take two buses to get to the box grocery store. Grocery stores will plant themselves in higher socio-economic (areas).”
Convenience stores then become just that – a convenient place to access food.
Larger grocery stores and supermarkets still net a large portion of people’s food budgets, but more and more people are buying food at convenience stores and dollar stores, according to a CU-CitizenAccess.org analysis of recent SNAP data from the USDA.
“Food deserts go hand-in-hand with convenience stores, which typically carry low nutritionally-dense foods,” Meline said.
Jaimie Faulkner, 49, of Rantoul, has been using SNAP benefits since last summer after an injury prevented her from working.
She lost her home in Mahomet as well and had to move in with a friend in Rantoul.
“My shopping habits have totally changed now compared to how they used to be,” Faulkner said. “I used to didn’t care. I’d just go to the store and get what I wanted.”
Faulkner added, “I just changed everything that I did. You have to when you don’t have money.”
SNAP benefits don’t cover items like toothpaste, laundry detergent or toilet paper.
So Faulkner said she has “learned to work it where I can make it or be close enough to make it for the month,” for she and her two teenage boys.
“I’m glad (SNAP) is there,” she said. “I also use food banks and stuff like that. Food stamps do help out but it’s not going to feed a whole family for a month.”
In the fight against hunger, it’s these programs that are most important, Gundersen said.
“Research has demonstrated that the most effective way to address food insecurity in the United States is through the use of public and private food assistance programs. That’s important to keep in mind,” he said.
Click on the interactive graphic below to see the changes in the number of SNAP recipients between 2006 and 2011 for selected Illinois counties: