When Food Stamps Fall Short, Local Pantries Step In

St. Ignatius Food Pantry
Volunteer Laura Michelini (left) assists patron at St. Ignatius Food Pantry. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

By Anna Boisseau

The well-stocked food pantry at St. Ignatius Church saw few visitors on Wednesday at the start of January. According to volunteer Anita Goldstein that is because, as patrons can only visit once a month, they generally come towards the end once Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and paychecks have run out.

Those recipients who trickled in were given a robust supply of items like canned soups, pastries from Starbucks and some fresh produce options.

The pantry is one of 650 member agencies affiliated with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), which has dispensed food around Cook County since 1979. According to Paul Morello, who works for GCFD, the organization mainly provides support to its partner pantries and soup kitchens in the form of distribution of food from its main location. Some are further funded by grants and donations.

Food pantries like St. Ignatius provide a necessary service for one person in the community, who identifies herself as Marsha. She said she only receives $59 in SNAP benefits a month. A Rogers Park resident, she relies on St. Ignatius to fill in the gaps.

“SNAP is called supplemental,” said Jim Conwell of the GCFD. “It really very rarely has the capability to provide all the food that a household needs.” In fact, 58 percent of households served through the GCFD are currently receiving food stamps.

St. Ignatius Church Food Pantry Entrance
St. Ignatius Church hosts food pantry Wednesdays and Fridays.
(Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

Marsha said she has tried to get more money each month from food stamps, but she isn’t confident that it will happen. Still, she is satisfied with the quality of products she can receive at St. Ignatius.

“This is the only one I come to,” she said. “They give me the best food.”

SNAP recipient Bill Eley agreed, saying he struggles to keep a healthy diet with the limitations of food stamps and pantries. He said he can find some things he needs, like eggs and peanut butter.

“Some people come in and say they have absolutely nothing in their house to eat,” said volunteer Laura Michelini. “And they have kids.”

Lynne, who chose not to reveal her last name, is a 58-year-old Rogers Park resident. She said that right now she is able to budget until the end of month between St. Ignatius and her SNAP benefits. She said she is afraid this will change when her husband returns after two years in prison and probably won’t work. “Now it’s easy because there’s no one home,” she said.

Conwell said he hopes that with the recent expansion of SNAP benefits to families at 165 percent of the federal poverty level, fewer families in Cook County will struggle with hunger. “The truth is that charity could never do it alone,” he said. “That’s a common misconception we hear in the news among opponents of hunger programs.”

“It’s always a struggle to keep up with hunger,” said Morello, “but we’re fortunate to have a really generous donor base.”

Volunteer Laura Michelini (left) assists patron at St. Ignatius Food Pantry (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)