As SNAP recipients see reduction in funds, Chicago residents make adjustments: ‘I make do’

Starting this month, recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will see a decrease in their benefits after a coronavirus pandemic-era funding boost ended.

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Ruth Poole-Rivera, 49, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient, stands in her kitchen in the Chatham neighborhood, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Poole-Rivera, who has diabetes and other health problems, said she and her family made $514 of SNAP assistance meet their needs, but she is worried now that her allowance is reduced to $281 because she will no longer receive additional funds from SNAP’s emergency allotments that started in April 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ruth Poole-Rivera, 49, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient, stands in her kitchen in the Chatham neighborhood, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Poole-Rivera, who has diabetes and other health problems, said she and her family made $514 of SNAP assistance meet their needs, but she is worried now that her allowance is reduced to $281 because she will no longer receive additional funds from SNAP’s emergency allotments that started in April 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As Ruth Poole-Rivera’s family adjusts to losing about $233 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, she plans to stretch out food essentials such as rice and beans as much as she can.

Even with the emergency allotment of SNAP benefits that kept her and other recipients afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, she continued visiting Nourishing Hope’s Sheridan Market food pantry once a month. Now, she’s considering if she’ll have to start making weekly trips from her Chatham home.

“You do what you have to do,” said Poole-Rivera about feeding her household, which includes grandchildren and elders. “I make do. God provides.”

She is among the more than 2 million Illinois residents who are seeing a change in their SNAP benefits — a program once known as food stamps — this month. The emergency allotments that started in April 2020 as part of COVID-19 relief efforts ended in February.

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Ruth Poole-Rivera, 49, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient, shows a pack of catfish nuggets she said she got from the food pantry in the Chatham neighborhood, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Poole-Rivera, who has diabetes and other health problems, said she and her family made $514 of SNAP assistance meet their needs, but she is worried now that her allowance is reduced to $281 because she will no longer receive additional funds from SNAP’s emergency allotments that started in April 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The changes come as more Cook County residents are relying on the federal program. In January, there were 966,163 Cook County residents enrolled in the program compared to 914,700 in January 2022, according to data from the Illinois Department of Human Services. Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were 846,385 Cook County residents enrolled in the program in January 2019.

At Nourishing Hope, the Chicago-based organization helped individuals during the coronavirus pandemic sign up for SNAP who were eligible for the first time or who could receive expanded benefits, said Jennie Hull, the chief program officer.

“Things haven’t really gotten better for folks during the last three years,” Hull said. “And so then you’re pulling away this safety net for people that they’ve grown to rely on. We’re just concerned how that’s going to impact people who need our services. We are already seeing an increase in people, and how many more will we see that need that support now.”

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At the Breakthrough Fresh Market on the city’s West Side, the organization was planning to return to its pre-pandemic allotments that called for clients to visit the food pantry once a month. But as the demand continues, they decided to continue allowing people to visit the pantry more than once a month regardless of where they live, said Cheron Massonburg, the chief program officer.

“It’s really detrimental when you have these sort of ‘food deserts’ in spaces like Garfield Park,” Massonburg said, recalling recent grocery store closures in the area. “So it’s really important to us that individuals who live in this neighborhood and this community have access to food.”

On a recent Thursday morning, more than a dozen people waited outside the food pantry about an hour before it opened.

It was the first time Willie Mitchell, 62, of Garfield Park, had visited the food pantry since the coronavirus pandemic. He’s expecting to see a decline in his SNAP benefits, though he wasn’t sure of the exact figure.

He would have liked for the emergency allotments to continue especially because he can only eat certain foods for health reasons.

“Chicken is high, everything went up — even vegetables,” Mitchell said. “That’s why I really came in here — I need vegetables.”

For Israel Munoz, 73, of Humboldt Park, he saw his SNAP benefits drop from $345 to $281. He recently visited the Breakthrough Fresh Market, and he thinks he’ll have to find other pantries to visit as he tries to stretch his groceries to also help feed his grandchildren and children.

“It’s a big help,” Munoz said in Spanish about the emergency allotments he had received. “You buy on the 7th, like yesterday or the day before, and it finishes. It doesn’t last a month because food is expensive.”

The Irving Park Community Food Pantry is stocking up on essentials such as shampoo, laundry detergent and feminine products so their clients can stretch more of their money on food and bills, said John Psiharis, the executive director. They also encourage residents to take advantage of the donated pet food the pantry receives.

“The timing of the SNAP decreases isn’t the best because people are paying more and more,” Psiharis said. “The prices are high for food and then all of a sudden they are getting less in SNAP so they’re less able to deal with the increased prices, which will mean that our numbers will continue to go up as people seek alternatives.”

Ana Al Saad, who volunteers at the Irving Park Food Pantry, enrolled in SNAP benefits during the coronavirus pandemic after her husband saw a reduction in his work. Her family of five is bracing for a loss of about $300 in their SNAP benefits, she said.

She said the family will probably cut back on meat while continuing to shop at the food pantry once a month.

“They helped us a lot, and I think it’s OK,” Al Saad said about SNAP’s emergency allotments. “It would be good if they could do it again in the future.”

Michael Nolan, 57, of Portage Park, was receiving an additional $95 in SNAP benefits during the pandemic, and he liked how the funds were staggered enough that it would help him get through the end of the month. He thinks recipients should receive more funds in light of increasing food prices.

“Now that that’s gone, I really needed to come here whereas it might have been somewhat optional in the past,” Nolan said about going to the food pantry. “Now it’s a necessity.”

Michael Nolan, 57, who used to get $376 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits because of the emergency allotments that kicked in during the COVID-19 pandemic, stands beside his refrigerator that contains food he received from food pantries in his home in the Portage Park neighborhood on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Nolan’s $376 will be reduced to $281 due to the ending of emergency allotments.

Michael Nolan, 57, who used to get $376 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits because of the emergency allotments that kicked in during the COVID-19 pandemic, stands beside his refrigerator that contains food he received from food pantries in his home in the Portage Park neighborhood on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Nolan’s $376 will be reduced to $281 due to the ending of emergency allotments.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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