With the holiday season in full swing, the news is grim for hunger in
Chicago – more and more Cook County residents don’t know where the next
meal is coming from and food pantry donations are down.
Also, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the farm bill next year – and the new legislation might include cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. food stamps.
On Monday, hunger relief workers and city officials testified at a City Council hearing on food insecurity in Chicago, convened by the committees on Health and Environmental Protections as well as Economic, Capital, and Technology Development.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) wrote the resolution
initiating the hearing. Despite the overall pessimism, the Albany
Park-based alderman said there are signs that the city is addressing hunger,
including Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for more urban agriculture. “It’s time
Chicago is tackling food policy and Emanuel is displaying a lot of
leadership on this issue,” Pawar says.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, the city’s main food bank, released a report in September that said 20.6 percent or 581,000 of Chicago residents are food insecure, which the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture defines as a reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet.
“In non-bureaucratic language, it’s the uncertainty of knowing where your next meal is coming from,” testified Katie Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Food Depository.
In Chicago and nationally, food insecurity is up – but donations to the Food Depository are expected to drop 12 percent next year. This is mostly due to reduced donations from the federal government.
Yet instead of replenishing food relief programs, Congress could make greater cuts.
Maehr testified that the conversation in Washington D.C. is still dominated by deficit reduction. “Congress wants to balance our budget on the backs of people who don’t know where the next meal is coming from,” Maehr says.
Moreover, Maehr says that when she talks to some members of Congress from Chicago, they are slow to catch on that it’s the farm bill that funds nutrition assistance, including assistance in big cities.
Pawar said that the City Council’s first order of business is, “A resolution asking Congress to authorize the farm bill and protect benefits.”
As for what else can be done on the city level, Pawar co-sponsored an ordinance with Emanuel that revised the zoning code to make it easier for communities to turn vacant lots into urban farms.
Pawar and Maehr also said kinds word about Emanuel’s Healthy Chicago Plan, which includes obesity reduction as a priority area.
However, the mayor’s focus so far has been more on nutrition (like the Dept. of Public Health’s focus on obesity reduction) and alleviating so-called food deserts, an obviously related, but not quite identical, problem to people simply going hungry.
David Brown, vice-president of the Common Pantry in the affluent Lakeview neighborhood, testified that his clients' biggest problems are not a lack of grocery stores, but a lack of affordable housing, affordable health care, and jobs.