Every week, Alma Hernandez drives her blue minivan to a food pantry and picks up two large cardboard boxes filled with staples like oatmeal, peanut butter, orange juice, apples and onions. The 39-year old resident of south suburban Blue Island said, before the pandemic, she had never visited a food pantry. But when she and her husband ended a long-troubled marriage last May, she was left with no income and four growing children to feed.
“I receive food stamps but this is really help,” said Hernandez, a native Spanish speaker. “I go to the food pantries all the time. When I see some place, I’m going because it’s really hard for me.”
Adding to the challenge has been the fact that her children, all school-aged, were no longer attending in-person classes on weekdays. Normally, they would receive free breakfast and lunch at school. But during the last year, when her children were learning remotely, Hernandez struggled to feed them three meals a day, plus snacks, she said.
Hernandez is among the more than 1 million Illinoisans who have experienced food hardship since the state largely shut down in March of 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19. According to one expert, the rate of food scarcity has roughly doubled compared to pre-pandemic times. And the picture is even worse when you look at who has been most severely affected: Black and Hispanic households with children.
“One of the things that’s really set apart the COVID time period is how many people who are reporting, in the last week we just have not had enough to eat,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University. “Those rates have been running, over the course of the pandemic, an average of 11% in Illinois, and about 15% in Illinois for families with kids.”
But according to data tracked by IPR throughout the pandemic, there have been times when as many as 33% of Black families with children reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. As many as 27% of Hispanic households with children have reported the same. Those rates are between two and three times more than the highest reported rate for white households with children during the last year.
These rates have increased despite measures to expand Illinois’s safety net. In April of 2020, the Illinois Department of Human Services preemptively increased the amount of money in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to the maximum allotments allowed for 450,000 Illinois families. And a WBEZ analysis of SNAP enrollment numbers in Illinois finds that enrollment increased by 17% between March 2020 and this past January, compared to the same period a year earlier.
Mary Gault, a family stabilization coordinator at Catholic Charities in northwest suburban Des Plaines, has been helping many families access food during the pandemic. In many cases, she helps them enroll in SNAP. She directs those who cannot, or who need additional aid, to food pantries. Gault said that she noticed an additional edge of anxiety among her Hispanic clients when it comes to seeking aid, particularly near the end of the Trump administration’s term.
“There’s also a fear with certain people who may be immigrants and may not have complete documentation … of what asking for some kind of help might do to their chances of getting documentation,” said Gault. “But what I’ve found is that once their kids get hungry, they call for help. And I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never seen it so blatant.”
For Araceli Hernandez Escalante, that reality set in one day when she realized all she would be able to put on the table for her four kids were eggs. Hernandez Escalante, a 41-year-old single mother to four children, works at a bread factory. But several months into the pandemic her hours were cut, and her family was reduced to eating one meal a day.
“You feel like every door is shutting in your face,” said Hernandez Escalante, in her native Spanish. “And you kind of start panicking.”
Hernandez Escalante’s eldest child, Yahiri, said the hunger made it hard for her and her siblings to learn. All of them have been participating in remote schooling from their home in Chicago.
“I would only be up for my classes, and then the rest of the time I would spend sleeping,” she said.
Yahiri said the younger ones struggled to stay awake during the day on empty stomachs and fell behind in classwork. Things changed when her mom learned about a nearby food pantry from a coworker.
“It was honestly a relief seeing we were able to have food,” Yahiri said. “Especially because now the pantries provide fresh vegetables, which is something that we couldn’t really even afford to begin with, because vegetables can be so expensive.”Many at the frontlines of fighting hunger in Illinois are hopeful, however, that the state may be turning a corner. Illinois has joined just a handful of states in winning federal approval to send Pandemic EBT cards to nearly one million children who qualify for free or reduced school meals. The cards will come monthly with the monetary equivalent of each meal that they have missed in school, due to remote learning, and can be used to purchase food. The first cards, mailed in March, were loaded with roughly $450 per child.
Additionally, the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden in March, includes thousands of dollars in tax credits for a majority of households with children. This will translate to monthly cash advances from the IRS to households, starting in July.
“All of that together is fundamentally going to shift the ability for people to access food. It’s going to have a profound impact,” said Kate Maehr, CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which is the food bank for Cook County. “And what that means is that we can then focus our resources on people who may not be able to access the safety net.”
Anti-hunger activists are hopeful that a renewed energy around expanding the safety net will make it stronger than it was before the pandemic. In recent weeks, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker affirmed his administration’s commitment to ending hunger in the state by announcing a new roadmap. Activists are also eyeing measures to expand access to free and reduced-price lunches across the state.
“The answer isn’t just organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository or the Northern Illinois Food Bank,” said Maehr. “But the promise should be for families with children to not have to go stand in food pantry lines during a pandemic.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter with WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.