Rafael Morel sat, edge of his seat, fidgeting with the paperwork in his hands.
Recently unemployed, Morel was seeking help at a food bank for the first time. He went to the Chicago Hope Pantry earlier this month to provide for his pregnant wife and infant daughter.
Before losing his job, Morel already was getting $88 a month under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP benefits, or food stamps. Being unemployed means he’s eligible for an increase, but that higher amount hasn’t kicked in yet. The shutdown and other paperwork problems slowed approval, he said.
So even though President Donald Trump signed a bill last week to fund the federal government and avoid another shutdown, some Illinois families, like Morel’s, will feel the aftershocks for months.
As the country coped with the longest in shutdown U.S. history, the Illinois Department of Human Services found enough money to issue February SNAP benefits early, on Jan. 20 (food stamps are a federally-funded program administered by states). But that meant benefits intended to last a month had to be stretched nearly a month and a half.
Food banks called it the “SNAP Gap,” said Greg Trotter, a representative from the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Morel said he knew the benefits they received Jan. 20 had to last until the end of February.
“But how do you stretch out $88 for three people, over five weeks?” he said.
He couldn’t. Morel, who has lived near Logan Square for 25 years, said his family was completely out of food by the time he went to the Chicago Hope Pantry.
People in government “are not thinking about people like me,” Morel said, tears running down his face. “They don’t have to go through what I do on a daily basis.”
The schedule for the next couple of months also will be a little off.
SNAP benefits typically are handed out over an entire month, with individual recipients getting them at the same time every month. But all Illinois recipients will now get their March benefits on March 1, and their April benefits from April 1 to April 10.
The regular schedule won’t be back in effect until May.
In 2017, 1,879,000 Illinois residents used SNAP benefits totaling $2.93 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally that year, about 42 million SNAP participants received a total of $60 billion. The average monthly SNAP benefit per U.S. household was $251.55 in 2018.
Concerns of another shutdown are on the minds of local SNAP recipients, and they are turning to food pantries for help between allotments, said Maggie Jordan, director of Chicago Hope Pantry, 2505 N. Kedzie Ave.
“Some people only get $5 with food stamps, some people only get $15, and that money does not go far. If your family is hungry by mid-January, and you hand someone their food stamps, they are not going to starve their family until March, they are going to use the food stamps,” Jordan said.
The shutdown “put people at a real disadvantage, and the early allotment from [the Illinois Department of Human Services] certainly helped, but they cannot expect people to still have those food stamps.”
During the shutdown, Jordan said she noticed an increase in people seeking food.
“Fortunately, we have been blessed by the food depository with adequate supplies,” Jordan said earlier this month. “It hasn’t been a question of not being able to provide, but we can’t be as generous as we would like to be. As far as we are concerned, the food stamps will still be in jeopardy for the time being, so we encourage them to keep non-perishable items.”
Jordan, who runs the pantry with the help of her son, said they’ve been following the government updates closely now.
“We told people that [the state] helped provide the month’s provisions, but we have no guarantees that this won’t happen again.”
Victoria Gilbert, a Logan Square resident and mother of a 6-year-old, also had complications with SNAP paperwork during the shutdown. So, off to Chicago Hope she went.
You know it’s time, “when you are looking in your own pantry, it’s completely empty and [you] realize there is nothing left,” Gilbert said. “You see a can of beans and you’re squeezing pennies to get your rent paid.”
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which partners with more than 700 food agencies and programs, saw no significant increase in food requested during the shutdown.
“There likely was an increase in demand at certain pantries but not enough to make for a noticeable increase system-wide,” Trotter said. “Without question, some of the food pantries in our network served federal employees who had never before sought food assistance.”
Without the announced March 1 disbursement, Illinois SNAP recipients could have gone 40 to 49 days between their February and March benefits, said Aimee Ramirez, manager of government relations and policy at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. On average, SNAP recipients benefits run out after about 3 weeks, she added, so March 1 payments will help.
“We still have to be mindful of the ripple effects of the shutdown,” Ramirez said.
“The clients we serve already live on really strict budgets. They are savvy in terms of managing the amount of money they have and where they put it,” she added. “But when you disrupt when they get money, or people are living paycheck to paycheck, and benefit to benefit, it’s a big deal.”