In March, SNAP recipients will see the amount on their Link cards drastically reduced, meaning less food—and less fresh food—on their table.
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federally-funded, state-run program that provides a monthly food allowance based on households’ size and income. About one in six Illinoisans rely on SNAP to meet their basic needs; and that number does not even reflect the people eligible for the program who don’t receive it, those who just barely don’t qualify, or those who are ineligible due to their immigration status. Over 940,000 people are on SNAP in Cook County, making up almost half of all people using the program in the state.
Since April 2020, states have been giving SNAP recipients additional Emergency Allotment, or EA, payments on top of their regular benefits. But these payments officially ended this month.
With widespread job losses caused by the pandemic, many families would have been eligible for increased SNAP benefits. But SNAP offices were running at diminished capacity due to remote work, social distancing, and prioritizing enrolling people in the program for the first time. So instead of reassessing everyone’s benefits, the federal government approved EA payments which gave people the maximum benefits for their family size, regardless of their income.
EA payments were supposed to last through the end of April 2023. But Congress buried the early program cancellation in an expansive bill passed at the end of last year. In a memo about the new law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wrote that states are not allowed “under any circumstance” to issue EA payments after February 2023. Illinois is one of the states that have kept the allotments for as long as possible.
These extra SNAP benefits were first introduced to help people survive during the pandemic but, as Man-Yee Lee, spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) has seen, SNAP recipients have really continued to rely on those payments.
“The fact is that food insecurity remains well above pre-pandemic levels. Currently, one in five households in the Chicago metro area is struggling to make ends meet,” added Lee. And, on average, EA payments have reduced the likelihood that households experienced food insecurity by about nine percent.
SNAP benefits provide anywhere between twenty dollars in extra monthly income to over $2,000 for households of ten or more, and the EA payments added an average of $220 to $290 more. With those EA benefits ending, people will see their overall SNAP benefits decline by thirty-five to forty percent, according to Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Northwestern economist studying SNAP. That means everyone will see at least a ninety-five dollar drop in their benefits.
Many people on Social Security benefits already saw a drop in their SNAP this year. After their Social Security benefits went up due to increases in the cost of living, their SNAP benefits were lowered to account for their increased income. But the maximum one person can receive via SSI is $914 per month, so even a small drop in SNAP benefits can mean the difference between canned or fresh vegetables, regular meals or an empty fridge at the end of each month.
The same bill that forced the early end of EA payments also established a permanent, federal summer food program starting in 2024. Barely filling in the gap for Chicago Public Schools’ free lunch program, families will receive at least forty dollars per summer month for each child in their house. While this was one vital step to ensure kids are fed all year, “SNAP is our nation’s most effective tool to prevent hunger. And when you’re taking money out of one bucket and putting it into another…it’s solving one problem, but at the expense of another,” said Lee.
“Choosing to end programs we know work is neglect, and people in power should have to account for that,” said Mara Heneghan, co-organizer for Market Box, a mutual aid project that sources food from small farms and distributes it for free across the South Side of Chicago, especially near the Woodlawn area.
While SNAP benefits are returning to pre-pandemic levels, the cost of living day to day is nowhere near where it was when we first locked down. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices in Chicago alone have increased over twenty-one percent since January 2020. Even now, when the inflation rate is steadily decreasing, “it seems that everything except food prices is stabilizing,” said Lee.
Grocery prices in Chicago rose by over seven percent, more than overall inflation in the city, in just the last year. With their food costs jumping twenty percent over 2022, Market Box is focused on “maintaining the quantity and quality of food in the 420-plus bags we send out every month,” said co-organizer Hannah Nyhart.
Eighty-six percent of Market Box recipients say that the project is “very important” to their families having enough to eat. Half of Market Box’s network qualifies for low-income benefits, yet they still need Market Box to help close the gap in their grocery bill and access fresh food.
Meanwhile, those who do not currently qualify for SNAP still struggle to get food on the table. That’s because the income limits set for benefits like SNAP are not far above the poverty line. For example, a single person in Chicago would need to take home roughly over $1,562 per month just to qualify for SNAP. “That means for the majority of our network, either their SNAP benefits aren’t enough to feed their family, or they don’t qualify for benefits but are still food insecure,” said Nyhart.
On a foggy Thursday afternoon outside of the Archdiocese of Chicago in Pilsen, Pilsen Food Pantry volunteers and employees repacked food into backpacks, suitcases, and carts on gray fold-out tables. Inside, two registration volunteers, Andi and Tina, called handwritten numbers from take-a-number tickets as clients sat in pews waiting to be called to go downstairs and choose their groceries. It was a quiet afternoon, but Andi said the morning was particularly hectic. Compared to the twenty or thirty clients they usually have by the end of the month, on this day in late February, they had over seventy. Tina has been hearing from more and more clients that their SNAP benefits are going down, leading them to visit the pantry.
Black and Brown families are anticipated to be the most impacted by this stark reduction in SNAP benefits, according to Market Box co-organizers and Schanzenbach’s research. Yet, as Evelyn Figueroa, Director of the Pilsen Food Pantry, explained, pantries on the South Side that serve larger populations of Black and Brown neighbors often have less funding to operate.
Figueroa also pointed out that there are just fewer pantries in the South Side neighborhoods, so the existing ones are spread thinner. In Chinatown, where there are no pantries, many people who are older, live with disabilities, or lack access to reliable transportation have to travel to Pilsen twice a month just to have fresh food. Operating on a smaller budget and sometimes using her own money to fill the gaps, Figueroa has spent countless hours trying to convince grocery stores to donate their leftover food. She remembered getting a sinking feeling when she saw similar North Side pantries operating with millions of dollars.
In Figueroa’s experience, many South Side pantries have just not had the same opportunities as ones on the North Side. Under a nonprofit model, leadership having access to affluent donors and supporters can make the difference between scraping by and having ample resources to, say, buy Thanksgiving turkeys for families shopping at the pantry.
“But when you’re run by people that had less opportunities to get ahead in life,” said Figueroa, “that means you’re not sitting in the same rooms with the same people you can recruit for boards” or ask to donate regularly. The structural disparities that leave people without reliable sources of food permeate the nonprofits that try to respond to them.
When first conceived, “food pantries and SNAP were supposed to be stopgap fixes,” explained Figueroa. Yet the Pilsen Food Pantry sees sixty to ninety percent of its customers return. Similarly, Market Box currently has over one hundred people on its waitlist, and fewer people are choosing to roll off of its distribution list. “We used to have some folks every month who would say, ‘Actually we’re doing better, I’d like my spot to go to somebody else who needs it.’ That hasn’t been happening as much this winter,” Heneghan explained. Without any other structural changes, pantries are a permanent necessity for many people to survive.
There are programs that have immediately, materially reduced food insecurity. “In 2021 when the refundable Child Tax Credit was being paid out monthly, food hardship measures dropped sharply among families with kids,” said Schanzenbach. Expanded and made permanent, programs like this could make a huge difference in people’s lives.
Participation rates for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) among families with children ages one to four are quite low, according to Schanzenbach. This is likely because, as Lee explained, a lot of people seem to assume the program is just for women and infants, when it is in fact also for pregnant people and those with kids up until the age of five years old. People who don’t quite qualify for SNAP may qualify for WIC because of the program’s higher income limits. The USDA has a pre-screening tool to help see if you qualify.
Although her team is honored to do this work, Nyhart explained that food pantries are band-aid solutions for larger structural problems. “We want a world in which people don’t need a project like Market Box to have enough to eat because the government has prioritized everybody’s survival.”
According to Schanzenbach, we will likely not see SNAP benefits increase again until October 2023 when the annual cost-of-living adjustments are made. So, in the immediate future, people affected by this stark SNAP reduction will need to find other sources of food and benefits to help get them through this period.
If you’re currently a SNAP recipient, you may be eligible to receive more money each month if there are more people living in your home; your income went down; your housing, medical, or childcare expenses went up; or you pay child support for a child not in your home.
There are dozens of expenses other than food that burden Chicagoans each day, from transportation to utilities. And there are some programs, like the Illinois Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that help households pay for things like winter heat, gas, and electric bills.
It can feel overwhelming to sift through all of the available benefits programs out there, so GCFD’s benefits hotline can help you understand the impact on your benefits and how to report changes. Call 773-843-5416 or submit their online form.
You can also make, or use, an account on the Application for Benefits Eligible (ABE) website to learn more about your options and apply for benefits.
If you’re not yet on SNAP, you can use the SNAP eligibility calculator to help figure out if you are eligible. Some people with lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, or green cards, are eligible. Now you can apply by phone, mail, online, or in person at a DHS office. Find more details here.
To find a food pantry, visit the Greater Chicago Food Depository website at chicagosfoodbank.org and click ‘Find Food.’ Sign up for the waitlist, donate, or volunteer with Market Box at marketboxchi.org. Visit pilsenfoodpantry.com or call (773) 812-3150 for information about the pantry.
Savannah Hugueley is a fact-checker and contributing writer for the Weekly.