CHAMPAIGN — The demand has been way up lately at Angela Bradley's church food pantry, so much that twice recently it ran out of the major foods families need to put meals on the table.
"Some people might think this is kind of kooky, but we prayed," she recalls.
Both times supplies were at their low point, donors walked in off the street with food, says Bradley, director of Stone Creek Church's pantry. But the extra folks to feed keep arriving.
Currently housed at Urbana's Grace United Methodist Church due to remodeling work, the Stone Creek pantry has been serving 200-plus more families a month — the kind of increase it typically doesn't see until summer when families don't have access to free meals at schools.
In March, the pantry fed 667 families, nearly double the number it served the previous March, with people coming from as far as Danville, Rantoul, Mahomet and other area towns, Bradley says.
These aren't just numbers, she says. These are people who are hurting.
"A lot of people we see who walk in our doors are going through some of the worst times in their lives," she says.
Those times got a bit worse last November when extra federal funding from the 2009 stimulus bill ended and reductions in food stamps — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — went into effect.
As of November, a single person who had been receiving the maximum $200 in food stamp benefits each month was cut back to $189 a month, and the new maximum monthly benefit for a family of four — minus a $36 cut — became $632.
The reductions left nonprofit foodbanks and pantries to pick up the slack, but they can't do it all.
The $5 billion in food stamps benefits lost in the November reduction was projected to eliminate nearly 1.9 billion meals in fiscal 2014, according to Feeding America, a national network of foodbanks. As predicted, that has been too large a gap for foodbanks and their member agencies to fill entirely, says Jim Hires, executive director of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
"The impact on food pantries is there are more people in line," he says.
The number of people being served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank's network of pantries, shelters and soup kitchens throughout 14 counties has risen by about 2,500 people a month this year over last year, Hires said.
The higher number doesn't necessarily mean more new food pantry users, however, because a number of clients go to more than one place for food. Most of the pantries in East Central Illinois provide 4-5 days' worth of food at a time and limit the number of times a month people can get it. When people need more than they can get at one pantry, they're referred to other pantries in the area.
Hires says a $36 reduction in food for an already-stretched family is the price of a tank of gas, and that money has to come from somewhere.
And, he adds, "a lot of these people are working. It's just that they are low-income."
On top of the SNAP cuts, Illinois began in March to stagger a series of later-in-the-month payment dates for food stamps beneficiaries. As of this month, all payments are now made on the 13th, 17th or 20th of the month — nine to 10 days later than previously.
State Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Januari Smith said the new schedule balances the needs of the program and helps spread out the impact of SNAP benefits shopping on grocery retailers, who were concerned about having too much traffic at the beginning of the month.
But it's also been another adjustment for families trying to make it to the next month's benefits payment, according to Robin Mathis, social services director for the Salvation Army of Champaign County.
The Salvation Army's food pantry, open five days a week, has also seen higher traffic, from about 40 families a day last year to 50-80 in recent months, she said.
It's been tough to keep up, Mathis says.
"We definitely have to purchase a bit more on an already stressed budget," she said. "We're stretching what we have in availability, and when we do get low, we're giving them the pantry list so they can go to other pantries so they can make it to the end."
The food pantry at Urbana's Vineyard Church has also seen an upswing of about 100 extra families a month, says its director, Paula Barickman.
How much of it is tied to reduced food stamps, Barickman can't say, "but several people have told us that food stamps were cut back."
The Vineyard pantry is open both Wednesday morning and evening, and the evening traffic has picked up.
"That tells us there are quite a few people out there who are what we call the working poor, working all day and still aren't making enough," Barickman says.
At some food pantries, the impact hasn't been so defined.
"Our numbers are up, but it's maybe a couple of percentage points," says Andy Kulczycki, executive director of Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County in Rantoul, which operates a food pantry.
Ellen Abell, coordinator of the food pantry at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Urbana, couldn't say whether numbers there have increased much, "but we are seeing some new people that we haven't seen before."
Bradley, who runs Stone Creek Church's pantry as a volunteer, says the change in location could be a factor in driving up the traffic. But she also believes the SNAP reduction has been "devastating" for people in the program.
"For a lot of people, it kind of feels like the rug has been snatched out from under them," she says. "It was something that made a hard life even harder."
By the numbers
90 percent: Monthly SNAP benefits redeemed by day 21. And that's before last November's SNAP reduction, according to Feeding America, showing benefits weren't stretching far enough to feed people for an entire month.
1.8 million: People in Illinois — or 14.2 percent of the population — don't know where their next meal is coming from.
1 in 3: People receiving food in the 14 counties served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is a child.