On rainy afternoon last week, Robinette Haywood waited in line for a food pantry under an awning at the Chosen Tabernacle church with her two youngest children, Malachi, 5, and Reign, 3.
Haywood, 46, who previously worked packaging meat in Milwaukee, recently moved to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood to be closer to family.
Haywood, who plans to find another job in Chicago, receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits to help feed her household, which includes two older children. But like about 2 million people in Illinois, she will be affected by a policy change in March that will reduce her monthly benefits.
Since early in the pandemic, families in Illinois have received emergency SNAP allotments on top of their typical benefits. In March, benefits will return to their pre-pandemic levels, though grocery prices remain high, climbing 11.3% in January over the same period the year prior, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I know it’ll probably be overwhelmed, but I’ll be coming to the pantry more often,” Haywood said.
Haywood also plans to use coupons and cook with more frozen food. She expects to see her benefits decrease by several hundred dollars a month, both because her eldest daughter is now working in Milwaukee and is no longer part of her household and because of the end of the emergency SNAP allotment.
Inside the fellowship hall at Chosen Tabernacle late last week, pastor Sandra Gillespie and a team of volunteers distributed meat and fish, cabbages and carrots and shiny red apples, canned goods and pastries to the residents who had lined up outside, waiting for their number to be called. Flyers at the front of the room warned of the impending reduction in SNAP benefits.
Most people who come to the food pantry are on SNAP, Gillespie said. That includes people who are working, she said.
“Right now, our people are eligible to come every week, and most of them have to come every week,” Gillespie said. At another recent pantry distribution, people lined up more than two hours before the church doors opened.
Gillespie expects the end of the emergency allotments to increase demand for the pantry’s services, and she’s worried she might have to limit how often people are able to visit.
“I’m really praying I don’t have to get to that, because I know a lot of these people count on this pantry,” Gillespie said.
Other food pantry directors told the Tribune they were worried about the potential effects of the end of emergency SNAP allotments too. Just as shoppers are struggling with prices at the supermarket, pantries — which have been seeing elevated levels of demand for about a year — know their dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to.
Explaining to pantry clients that SNAP benefits are “returning to pre-pandemic levels when the economy is not the same as pre-pandemic” is “disturbing” said Evelyn Figueroa, executive director of the Pilsen Food Pantry.
“I’m very worried about whether or not we’re going to be able to rise to the challenge,” of increased demand, said Figueroa. Besides higher costs, the pantry is also short on volunteers.
Many people turned to SNAP for the first time when the pandemic hit and have only known the benefits program while receiving the emergency allotments, said Kellie O’Connell, CEO of food pantry and social services organization Nourishing Hope.
“It’s hard to imagine what the influx of clients might look like when the benefits are cut,” she said.
Here’s what Chicagoans should know about cuts to SNAP benefits.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress authorized states to allow families to access the maximum benefit allowance for their household size. About half of U.S. states have already ended the emergency allotments, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP in the state. Illinois is one of the states that has kept the allotments for as long as possible, said Sophie Milam, vice president of policy and advocacy for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Now, the emergency allotments are ending, a change dictated by a provision in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last year. IDHS said the change will affect 1 million households and 2 million people in Illinois.
The end of pandemic-level SNAP allotments in Illinois will take effect March 1.
Benefit amounts depend on factors such as income, expenses and household size. On average, people will see an $82 decrease in their SNAP benefits each month, but individual decreases will range between $55 and $255 a month, said Milam.
Households with multiple people could see larger decreases. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Northwestern economist who studies SNAP, said that nationally, households are expected to receive, on average, $223 less per month in benefits when emergency allotments end. For households with children, she said, that number is nearly $300.
In a news release, IDHS said all households that receive SNAP will be mailed a letter telling them how much money in benefits they will receive starting in March.
Some families with children under age 5 or pregnant or postpartum women may be eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. The program is “incredibly underutilized” in Illinois, Milam said; as of 2020, she said, only 37% of eligible people in the state were enrolled in the program.
People can also rely on food pantries, pantry directors said. The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s map of Cook County pantries is accessible online.
“We understand and recognize that many Illinois residents have counted on these additional emergency food benefits to secure healthy food for themselves and their families,” IDHS secretary Grace Hou said in a statement. “We are working with our food pantry partners across the state to meet residents’ needs during this adjustment period.”
Advocates say people can make sure the information they provide IDHS is up to date to ensure they receive the maximum benefits they are eligible for. “They want to make sure they update every single monthly cost they have, update any income changes, especially if there’s a loss of income,” O’Connell said.
People can apply for SNAP or update their information at abe.illinois.gov. IDHS has a help hotline at 1-800-843-6154.
Organizations such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Nourishing Hope can also help. The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s benefits team helps people fill out applications and get connected with benefits. They can be reached at 773-843-5416. Nourishing Hope can be reached at 773-525-1777.
Schanzenbach, the Northwestern economist, has studied the impact of the end of emergency SNAP allotments in states that ended the pandemic payments earlier. Her research shows that the end of the emergency programs could cause hunger — as defined by the share of households who say they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat over the previous week — to go up by about 10%.
“Folks have been getting the maximum benefit for many months, but yet they’re still just really financially fragile,” she said. “Many of them are just on the border between experiencing hunger and not.”