About 180,000 more Illinois residents are expected to struggle with access to food this year compared to 2019, according to new research. Rural areas in southern parts of the state will likely suffer the most.

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In the wake of ending pandemic measures to ease food insecurity, about 180,000 more Illinois residents are expected to struggle to eat, according to a new report. 

And in southern Illinois, this problem will be amplified.

“Once COVID-19 emergency measures are no longer in place — and that has already started to happen — food accessibility will return to be the persistent, quiet curse in Southern Illinois it was before COVID-19,” said Glenn Roberts, executive director of Tri-State Food Bank. 

Prior to the pandemic, nearly one in 10 Illinois residents were food insecure — meaning they lacked access to affordable, healthy food, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That number is expected to grow, according to projections from Feeding America

Tri-State Food Bank serves 16 counties bordering Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana that are predominantly rural, have high unemployment and poverty rates and also have a serious lack of grocery stores because the area is economically depressed, Roberts said. 

Roberts said grocery stores in the area are decreasing in number and many of the existing ones are small convenience stores that typically lack nutritional food. For example, in Illinois, Alexander County had its one local grocery, Wonder Market, close in 2015, and Pulaski County’s closed last year, he said. 

Feeding America, a nonprofit serving as a nationwide network of food banks, reported food insecurity among individuals living in rural communities was 14.4% in 2020 and is projected to be 13.3% in 2021 — still a percentage point higher than in 2019, when it was 12.5%.

Stephen Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois — the association of eight Feeding America food banks that serve Illinois — said that the southern Illinois region is the starkest when it comes to food insecurity in the state. 

“If you took any other 17 counties in the state and put them together, it wouldn’t even compare,” said Ericson. “I mean one percentage point can be a whole lotta people in the area down there.” 

Ericson said rural Illinois presents a different set of challenges when it comes to providing food assistance. There might be just one food pantry for the whole county whereas in northern Illinois, a suburban town might have three to four pantries for similar sized populations, he said. 

“I hate to use the word food desert because it sounds so desolate and desperate and we always try to find silver-lining in all of this, but it really is a rare scenario in southern Illinois where there are true food deserts,” he said. 

Across Illinois, the number of weekly applications for food assistance increased from 9,000 applications to over 35,000 during the pandemic, according to Illinois Commission to End Hunger.  

And food banks were no exception.

“We saw a dramatic spike in our service numbers at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Molly Delaney, vice president of development at Eastern Illinois Food Bank. 

She said food mobiles that normally served 200 households were serving 500 households and many of the partner agencies were seeing new faces as those who never used a food pantry or feeding program before were seeking food assistance. 

Delaney also noted that the workers at the food mobiles were concerned about regular patrons, particularly seniors, who were no longer showing up due to fear of catching COVID-19. 

Eastern Illinois Food Bank’s partner agencies, pantries and feeding programs moved to a pre-boxed, contact-free food distribution process and started offering drive-through pick-up to limit physical contact, Delaney said.

She said the food bank saw demand spike up to 30-to-40% at the start of the pandemic, but it has stabilized since then. 

“We are still distributing more food than before the pandemic,” she said. 

The food bank distributed 10.5 million pounds of food in fiscal year 2019, she said. In 2020, it distributed 11.5 million pounds. 

The fiscal year 2021 has just ended, and Delaney said the food bank distributed 11.7 pounds of food, or 11.4% over pre-pandemic levels. 

Federal measures put in place during the pandemic to help included easier access to food assistance benefits and higher unemployment payments. Yet, these moves are only temporary and have expired or are set to expire. 

Federal food assistance programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, were crucial to getting food to Illinois residents, said Sophie Milam, senior director of public policy at Greater Chicago Food Depository. But challenges remain to connect people to benefits, especially if they’re navigating the system for the first time, she said.

“When we have a situation like COVID, where many people are newly eligible for food assistance, many of them do not know where to go for food assistance,” she said.

Milam said the food assistance program is “inadequate” to meet the needs of food insecure households. She said most participants exhaust their SNAP benefits by the third week and resort to using a food pantry to put food on the table for the rest of the month. 

“You can also make a little bit too much income to qualify for SNAP and you have nowhere else to go but the food pantry,” she said. “And there are certain populations that face unique barriers to their eligibility including able-bodied adults who face work requirements.” 

Although the application process has temporarily been made simpler due to the pandemic, it should be made a lot more streamlined so people can receive their benefits quicker, said Craig Gundersen, a professor at the University of Baylor.

“Currently, it’s more complicated than filing for your taxes, so I think that’s the first thing that should be done to address food insecurity,” Gundersen said.

Lead photo courtesy Canva.