Over the last five years, the poverty rate in Champaign County has fallen, but the number of people seeking food assistance has steadily risen, according to Illinois Department of Human Services data.
From 2019 to 2023, the number of people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has increased by about 16%, much of which occurred during the pandemic and remains unwavering. As of September this year, 32,395 people in 17,102 households are enrolled in Champaign County. Data for October has not yet been made available.
Craig Gundersen, professor of economics and food insecurity researcher at Baylor University, said there are multiple factors contributing to the rise, such as changes in eligibility.
“Between COVID, under the Trump administration, followed by the Biden administration, everybody was bumped up to the maximum level [given the maximum benefits] which meant it was a lot more lucrative for people to go into SNAP in that time period,” Gundersen said. “In 2021, the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to set the maximum benefit level was increased by 20%, which then also meant a lot of people went into the program.”
Gundersen worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for just over 10 years, and was the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory. He was a distinguished professor at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and his research focused on food insecurity and the evaluation of programs like SNAP.
Champaign resident and SNAP recipient Fiona O’Connor discussed SNAP’s significant impact on her life as a college student from her freshman year to now, her final semester as a senior.
“I started SNAP during COVID and I got $250 a month, which is the max allotment for a one-person household, now I get $100,” O’Connor said. “I’m not mad at that though. It is still a big help for me. I work two jobs and go to school so sometimes it gets really hard, and that $100 helps so much.”
O’Connor said SNAP benefits helped her stay financially stable during the pandemic.
Data shows that in 2016, about 27,000 people in the county were recipients of SNAP benefits. This increased to about 30,000 in 2017, but fell to 28,000 in 2018 and 2019.
From March to July 2020, as the pandemic loomed worldwide, the number of SNAP recipients increased to more than 30,000 people. Since then, the number of those enrolled in the program has continuously increased — reaching nearly 34,000 so far this year — and has failed to return to numbers seen before the pandemic.
Data shows at least 30,000 county residents were enrolled in SNAP benefits each month since October 2021. In July 2022, despite a population decrease, there were over 3,000 additional people enrolled in the program.
Although there has been a rise in food assistance recipients, the food insecurity rate in Champaign County has declined over the last six years. According to data from Feeding America the food insecurity rate — the percentage of people with “consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life” — in Champaign County was at 15% in 2017.
By 2019, the rate dropped to 11.2% and fell further to 9.5% this year. This means almost 12,000 people are food insecure since 2017.
Gundersen, who currently works with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, said the food insecurity rate continues to decrease in the U.S. overall. Feeding America reports that from 2017 to 2021, the national food insecurity rate decreased from 12.5% to 10.4%.
This can be attributed, in part, to more and more people enrolling in government assistance programs like SNAP.
In March 2023, the maximum benefits given to SNAP recipients during the pandemic were removed. However, as of September, data shows that this did not cause the numbers to falter, as they still remain higher than the previous year.
University of Illinois student Josie Mendez applied for SNAP earlier this year, however, her experience was different. A few days after her SNAP interview, she learned that her application was rejected after she was found ineligible. Mendez said the unexpected rejection was frustrating.
“I was so surprised and sad,” she said. “I thought I qualified but I guess with my job and the way it’s set up I didn’t. It would have taken a lot of weight off my shoulders because, realistically, I don’t make much.”
Mendez said she may consider reapplying later on to see if she gets a different outcome.