Food insecurity projected to soar in eastern Illinois and Champaign County

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Eastern Illinois Foodbank provides a graphic to explain how food reaches those in need.

Food insecurity in the 18 counties served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is projected to rise this year by an alarming rate of almost 37%, from 119,000 people to 163,000 people by the end of the year, according to a nonprofit hunger relief organization.

The nonprofit organization Feeding America has projected Champaign County’s food insecurity rate to increase by 31% by the end of 2020 in comparison to data collected in 2018. 

Feeding America is a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies. It uses the Department of Agriculture’s identification of food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” 

The data is gathered using the public data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics on factors including poverty, unemployment rates, and the cost of a meal, along with responses to 18 survey questions.

Champaign was the eighth most food-insecure area of these 18 counties in 2018, and in 2020 it is projected to be the eleventh as Vermillion and Cole Counties expect to experience rates exceeding 18%. 

Eastern Illinois Foodbank also had issues with food distribution due to COVID-19, CU-CitizenAccess reported in December.

Craig Gundersen, a university researcher who focuses primarily on food insecurity, said the elevating need for food security is directly attributed to rising unemployment rates. The latest data indicates that the September unemployment rate in Illinois was 6.8% higher than it was in March, as March 2020 saw 264,000 unemployed and September 660,000. 

“It’s an ongoing problem,” said Molly Delaney, the vice president of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, about food insecurity. “The reasons that food insecurity exists here in Central Illinois are kind of the same as they are everywhere. It’s not certainly a lack of available food. We’re one of the richest farmlands in the country. It just is more about the socioeconomic factors that put people at risk for food insecurity.”

The overall rate in Champaign County is projected to increase from 11% to 14.4%. The national food insecurity rate is currently 11.5%, and the Illinois food insecurity rate is 10.1%.

The food insecurity rate for children in Champaign County is projected to increase by 52% from 2018, jumping from 12.8% to 19.4%. Compared to a 2019 study by the USDA, this would be 5.8% higher than the national average. 

Gundersen said there are two main organizations that are used to curb hunger in Champaign County. The first being the national SNAP program, or “The Supplemental Nutrition Program”, formerly known as food stamps. 

SNAP supplements the food budget of families who meet criteria for food insecurity. The maximum benefit level is given when net income is $0, and with each dollar made, 24 cents are subtracted from the total amount given. Gundersen says this does not deter people from working. From the last data collected in 2017, 10.4% of Champaign County households received SNAP benefits. 

“SNAP is the cornerstone of efforts to alleviate food insecurity in the United States,” he said.

“Even though SNAP is very successful, there are still a lot of people who are food insecure despite getting SNAP. There are a lot of people who are right above the eligibility threshold who do not get SNAP.” 

He says potential ways to improve the SNAP program are increasing the maximum benefit level and expanding the number of people who are receiving benefits. 

The second main organization, Gundersen said, is the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, where Molly Delaney works.  

Since March, the foodbank distributed upwards of 7 million pounds of food supplied by partnered programs to feeding agencies and food pantries that distribute food to people in the county, Delaney said.

But the foodbank is still working to meet the new high demand, which Delaney says is “directly related to the economic impact of the coronavirus.” 

Delaney said since March the demand for emergency food has increased by 25-30%. In the month of October, nearly 20% of EI Foodbank’s beneficiaries were “new clients”. Thirty-seven of the Foodbank’s partnered programs, which supply food, have closed temporarily or changed their hours. 

In August, a $417,000 grant was given to the Foodbank by Feeding America because of this increase. Delaney says that the Foodbank has added new drivers, trucks, routes and warehouse staff to the program. 

Two workers at the Foodbank tested positive for the COVID-19 on November 4, and have gone through isolation, according to a statement released by CEO and President Jim Hires.

Another organization that works to feed the hungry in Champaign is the Common Ground co-op, a community-owned grocery store which partners with nonprofits in the area. Sarah Buckman, outreach coordinator at the co-op says that Common Ground has contributed around $14,000 to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank over the past three years. 

Buckman says Common Ground is a store that works to mend food insecurity because it repurposes their food as donations to organizations including Jubilee Cafe, Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, UniPlace Community Diner, and more recently, Cunningham Township.

Common Ground attempts to support the community in these times by sourcing food from local farms. 

“Those are all family-run farms that need the funds and for us to purchase their products even more during COVID. Local meats, local cheeses, that’s been really easy to order because we have them locally.”, she said. “It really has opened my eyes as to why it’s so important to help our local farmers and source from our local farmers.”

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