By most measures, 2011 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years for many of the state’s food banks, pantries, shelters and soup kitchens.
Efforts to feed those residents who don’t know where their next meal is coming from has been a daunting task - as the level of demand has risen to some of its highest levels in recent memory.
With government and private donations on the decline, many charitable food providers have been forced to do more with less in order to continue operating, which has raised concerns that conditions for the state’s hungry might get even worse in 2012.
“I would say that overall, the food banks are keeping their heads above water, but it’s been a real struggle,” said Tracy Smith, state director for Feeding Illinois, a coalition of the state’s eight food banks that provides food for more than 2,000 food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens throughout Illinois. “We’re very, very concerned about what next year  looks like.”
One of the biggest challenges food banks continued to face in 2011 was dealing with the effects of a still sluggish economy, which has kept the state’s unemployment rate around 10 percent since 2009.
The result has been an increase in first-time visitors to food pantries in recent years, as more and more middle class households have been forced to seek food assistance.
In terms of supply, Smith said a major reason for the concern has been a projected decline in the amount of food donations coming from the federal government through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provided Illinois with more than 30 million pounds of food last year.
As Smith explained, TEFAP allocations are tied with the federal farm bill, which provides subsidies to farmers to offset dips in market food prices. Food bought through TEFAP is then distributed to the states to help re-stock food banks.
“In the past year, prices have increased [and] fuel costs have increased,” Smith said. “And so there are fewer dollars to spend on the commodity food. “
In fact, data provided by the Illinois Department of Human Services paints a rather bleak picture for charitable food supplies – with projections indicating the state since last July, has experienced a 40 percent drop in the amount of food made available through TEFAP compared to the same period in 2010, amounting to a loss of about 10 million to 12 million pounds.
Few facilities have felt the decline in food donations harder than the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), which distributes an estimated 69 million pounds of food each year.
“One of the big factors we’re facing is rising food prices,” GCFD spokesman Bob Dolgan said. “From TEFAP alone, we have seen a decline of about 3 million to 4 million pounds of food.”
If trends continue, the number of people food pantries will be able to serve will decline, leaving many of the state’s estimated 1.8 million residents who are considered to be food insecure with even fewer options for help.
“It is a reality that both federal and state resources are tight and it doesn’t look like they are getting much better in the short term,” said Thomas, who also serves as a member of the Illinois Commission to End Hunger. “One of things we’ve been looking at is the importance of not only relying on publicly-funded resources, but also developing more private and alternative resources to really tackle this problem.”
But government resources remain a large part of the solution, according to Smith, who also serves on the Commission. One alternative being discussed is an effort to increase enrollment in federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as well as the National School Lunch program.
“If we can bring more resources in and take some pressure off of the food banks, then we have more resources for those people who don’t qualify [for federal assistance],” Smith said. She added that the Commission was also looking into the possibility of establishing more direct relationships between food banks and local farmers.
The changing face of hunger throughout the state has coincided with an overall greater dependence for food assistance. According to the national charitable organization Feeding America, more clients say they are visiting food pantries to meet chronic, long-term issues with food insecurity as opposed to getting short-term help for emergencies.
The organization has estimated roughly 42 percent of those recognized as being food insecure in Illinois have incomes that make them ineligible to qualify for SNAP. The program in 2011 reportedly saw an 8 percent rise in the number of households receiving benefits compared to 2010.
Thomas was hopeful the work of the Commission will help find solutions that will greatly reduce the rate of hunger throughout Illinois even as government resources have waned. Appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010, the Commission is scheduled to release its initial report in March that is expected to include more details of its plan moving forward.
“I think that the report will acknowledge the uncertainty that is out there, and obviously the need for continued investments in hunger programs at the federal level,” Thomas said. “But it will also recognize that we cannot rely on that alone, and also focus on what opportunities there are to develop alternative partnerships and funding strategies.”