Families feeling the pinch

Patrons of the Barb Food Mart at Huntley Middle School browse the shelves for food items in DeKalb, Ill. on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.
Patrons of the Barb Food Mart at Huntley Middle School browse the shelves for food items in DeKalb, Ill. on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.

John Lassiter of DeKalb has struggled to feed his family since the recession.

“There are five of us: twin girls 5 years old, a wife, and a stepson,” Lassiter said as he waited in line at the Barb Food Mart at Huntley Middle School in DeKalb on Nov. 14. The family qualifies for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – commonly called food stamps – but those benefits were reduced on Nov. 1, when a temporary increase in benefits expired.

“We got a double whammy,” said Lassiter, who moved his family from Romeoville to DeKalb in search of work last December after his wife was laid off from her job in the mortgage industry. He is working part-time at a local distribution center while he looks for full-time work.

“Not only did we get impacted by the cut, but my stepson turned 18.”

Lassiter said he only goes to Barb Food Mart, a food pantry for families with children in District 428, occasionally, when the family is faced with difficult decisions about how to spend its limited budget.

“You could actually get a lot of food (here), so I could afford to drive to and from work,” he said.

Eligible families are provided SNAP benefits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service based on a formula that includes the number of children in the household. The federal government provided a temporary boost in benefits during the recession, but when those temporary benefits expired this month, families felt the pinch.

Nationwide, 48 million Americans in 23 million households rely on SNAP benefits. There are about 2 million SNAP recipients in Illinois, about 16 percent of the state’s population. The cuts affect 886,000 children in Illinois, and 349,000 elderly and disabled residents. 

The Illinois Department of Human Services provides information about the program on its website. A typical family of four received benefits of $668 in October, but only $632 in November, a cut of $36.

“That works out to about 16 (individual) meals per month,” said Sheryl Nakonechny, director of Barb Food Mart. Nakonechny said the food pantry regularly serves 70 to 80 families each Thursday afternoon, and some families arrive 90 minutes before the doors open in order to get the best selection from the limited supply of produce, milk, eggs, and non-perishable foods.

Captain Michael Cho of the DeKalb Salvation Army said that 70 families visited the food pantry there the day after the benefit reductions were publicized in October.

“You may call it a coincidence, but that’s the month we had the record number of visitors to the food pantry,” Cho said. During the month of October, the Salvation Army’s food pantry provided food to a record 880 families. The food pantry is open mornings Monday through Thursday, and on Thursday evenings.

Last week, the Salvation Army and WLBK-AM radio partnered for their annual Let’s Talk Turkey event, collecting donated turkeys for the record 800 local families who registered for Thanksgiving food baskets from the Salvation Army. Next month, they will partner for the Freezing for Food food drive to collect non-perishable foods for the Salvation Army food pantry.

Diane Simpson of Cortland dropped off several frozen turkeys and other groceries during the Let’s Talk Turkey drive.

“I have been doing this at least 10 years,” she said. “I have been lucky. I have an orchard, so during the summer I bring fruit to the pantry.”

She said that she donates food throughout the year, but that “it’s especially important to be able to share during the holidays.” 

Salvation Army volunteers begin ringing bells at donation kettles around DeKalb County next week to collect money for Salvation Army’s various services. This year’s fundraising goal is $70,000.

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