CHICAGO (STMW) – Even as the economy grew and the unemployment rate began to shrink, the number of Illinois households getting food stamps hit record levels in December, showing no signs of an economic recovery, and area food pantries say they’ve continued to see more people asking for help.

There were 857,282 households enrolled last month in what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. That was up 12.7 percent from a year earlier, according to figures provided to the Chicago Sun-Times by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Job losses caused by the recession drove numbers up over the year in all seven counties in the Chicago area. The biggest percentage increases were in DuPage, Kendall, Kane and McHenry counties.

“Since the fall of ’08, we’ve had an increase practically every month” statewide, said Jan Freeman, director of the SNAP program in Illinois. “We’re not seeing it go down yet.”

Neither is the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes food through a network of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County. Representatives note it has seen a roughly 65 percent to 70 percent increase in individuals served at its pantries since 2007.

“More people turned to the pantries in our community in November than in any month in our 32-year history,” said Kate Maehr, chief executive officer of the non-profit.

The St. Ailbe Church food pantry on Chicago’s South Side went from providing food to roughly 2,000 people a month in 2009 to about 3,000 people a month last year, said director Sammie Wayne. “It’s people ages 25 to 90, and they are asking for more help.”

Requests for help with food, from pantries and SNAP have risen even more dramatically in Chicago suburbs.

“We have a food pantry in Hoffman Estates that’s our fastest-growing pantry,” said Maehr.

There have been double-digit increases in the number of people receiving food the last two years at the Peoples Resource Center pantry in Wheaton, said Melissa Travis, director of food services. “It’s completely the economy,” she said.

In addition to the long-term poor, those seeking help at the Wheaton pantry include more “people that never thought they would use a food pantry, that sort of forgotten middle class that had a pretty good- paying job, and suddenly they don’t have that income,” Travis said. “They’re struggling.”

In Cook County, 467,754 households received SNAP benefits in December, a 13.6 percent increase over the year. In DuPage County, the number of households enrolled in the SNAP program jumped 23.8 percent to 25,520 in December from a year earlier. The number rose 15.4 percent in Kane County to 25,975, while the biggest percentage increase was in McHenry County, which spiked 30.3 percent to 7,265 families.

Travis expects requests for help with food to continue to rise even as the economy improves “because the people at the bottom have the hardest time climbing out,” she said.

That’s why Winfield resident Jayne Fitzpatrick-Falls, who previously worked cleaning houses, has had to get help at the pantry and SNAP benefits.

“People just don’t have the money to hire people anymore,” said 50-year-old Fitzpatrick-Falls, who is also a free-lance writer. “I haven’t been working for a couple of years. Getting on my feet, it has been really hard.”

The Wheaton pantry is a participant in a pilot program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allows pantry clients to apply for SNAP benefits and receive their Link card at the pantry.

The West Suburban Community Pantry in Woodridge is another pilot program site.Roger Schmith, director of operations there, said requests for help for Thanksgiving and Christmas were up 25 percent last year over 2009 at the pantry.

Pantry operators noted the SNAP program often falls short in helping families, resulting in many enrollees turning to pantries for additional food to make it through each month.

“The food stamp program, what they receive, at bare bones, they might make it, depending on their situation and how the state’s formula works, said Schmith. “But usually it will not cover a family of four for a month.”

Generally, to qualify for the SNAP program, a family of four’s household income cannot exceed $2,389. That family would be eligible for a maximum benefit of $154 a week. Food depository CEO Maehr notes the average SNAP benefit in the state is about $25 a week for an individual.

“There’s no way that will buy all the food that they need,” she said.

That’s often the case for Fitzpatrick-Falls, who receives $30 in SNAP benefits a week.

“It’s not always enough,” she said, while praising the work of staff and volunteers at the Peoples Resource Center Pantry in Wheaton. Saturday she picked up rice, bread, soup and other canned goods there.

SNAP Director Freeman declined to speculate on whether food stamp numbers will continue to rise in the state this year, but noted it will remain linked to the economy.

“With unemployment and so forth, it’s sort of an unknown,” she said.

But Maehr is worried about this year. As the food industry continues to deal with the aftermath of recession, food donations are down year to date about 6 percent at the depository, she said.

“I’m scared because as we potentially see some improvement in the national macroeconomic picture, my fear is that people will think that means we’re out of this,” she said. “We had a record number of people come in November. That number I don’t think is going to go down soon. In the case of the food depository, we’re going to need to continue to provide record amounts of fresh food. . . . It’s a new normal for us.”

© Sun-Times Media Wire Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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