CHAMPAIGN — Three counties in the Eastern Illinois Foodbank’s service area — Champaign, Vermilion and Coles — have food-insecurity rates higher than Chicago’s home county.
That’s just one of the key findings in the recently released Map the Meal Gap study by Feeding America. That report found the food bank service area’s food-insecurity rate — which covers 18 counties in East Central Illinois — was 12.4 percent, just slightly less than Cook County’s 12.6.
Champaign’s food-insecurity rate (15 percent) was higher than Vermilion County’s (14.7 percent) and only slightly lower than East St. Louis’ St. Clair county (15.5 percent).
That means there are about 31,250 food-insecure people in Champaign County, in need of an additional $15 million to meet food needs. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”)
These are trends that aren’t exactly news for Jim Hires, CEO and president of the food bank. He said more and more families have been relying on the organization’s charitable assistance to 167 agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, which right now feeds about 138,000 people.
“There are a lot of explanations for these numbers,” Hires said. “In our case, it’s underemployment, primarily. But that differs from area to area. Rural areas have been particularly hard hit economically, and people may have jobs, but they don’t pay a great deal. With housing costs as high as they are, if you’re low-income, you’re struggling to pay rent and feed your family.”
The underemployment piece of the puzzle explains why the report also notes that 35 percent of residents in this part of the state who are food insecure are also likely ineligible for federal nutrition assistance under the current program requirements.
Despite the impact of underemployment on Feeding America’s numbers, Hires said it’s important to understand that it’s a combination of different issues that keep the rates as they are.
“The grocery stores in some of our most rural areas have dried up,” Hires said. “We have a good transport system here in Champaign-Urbana, but in rural areas, they have to really plan when they visit the grocery store.”
But most troubling for Hires is the food insecurity among children in the area, especially in Vermilion County. There, 20.7 percent of children don’t eat three meals a day.
'The need is more'
Sue Barnes, food services director for the Danville school district, said that once summer starts each year, students who rely on the free lunch provided by the school under the Community Eligibility Provision — which makes breakfast and lunch available at no charge to all students — still go hungry.
That’s why the district uses the Seamless Summer Option to provide breakfast and lunch for students on summer breaks and also the community at large.
“We open our doors to anyone 18 or under, and we feed them all at different places in the community,” Barnes said. “We are a poverty-stricken area, and so based on that, we’re in the CEP program. For the summer program, it seems to be going up a bit each year.”During the 2018 Seamless Summer, Danville schools served 565 lunches per day and 350 breakfasts.
It’s not just about meeting basic needs though, Hires said. “We have to think about the quality of food people get,” he said. “We need to do something about expanding the food options we give, but we’ve run into a problem because our warehouse is becoming smaller as the need rises.
“We’re very pleased we’re able to make the effort we can, but the need is more than we can ever really meet.”