MORRIS – Several years ago, Grapevine Mission founder Judy Pershey came across two young kids digging through dumpsters, looking for their next meal.
“It was heartbreaking,” Pershey said. “They were so excited that there was leftover pizza thrown away. We started bringing them food.”
Helping those two kids compelled her and Mark Pershey to establish Grapevine in Dwight, a nonprofit organization that helps local families by delivering food, “dignity packs” and offering other services.
As a volunteer-based operation, Grapevine’s resources are limited. Pershey will often encourage clients to apply for government aid.
“Many of them don’t know the system or how the benefits work,” she said.
The most well known and widely used government food assistance resource is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP.
Locally, Grundy County has seen an increase in the number of SNAP recipients in the past five years.
Although the demand is greater, the amount of aid available is not. SNAP money received per household has decreased in Illinois over the last five years.
In 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture reported 3.7 percent of the Grundy County population – or 1,859 people – relied on food stamps.
By 2010 – the most-recent data available for Grundy – that number rose to 3,134 people, or 6.2 percent of the population.
In 2013, the average Illinois household received $276.75 per month in benefits, down from $285.85 per month in 2009, according to the USDA.
The SNAP program was a topic of much debate during the 2012 Farm Bill discussions.
In the end, Congress approved a $8.6 billion cut to the SNAP program.
“We do find that because of the socioeconomic times, people need more food and they need more money to purchase food. But there have been some really big cuts,” said Phylicia Malone, registered nurse for the Grundy County Health Department. “In Grundy County alone, we took some major cuts in the last year.”
In dealing with families who receive SNAP, Pershey said food stamps will only cover about three weeks of every month.
Her clients rely on food banks such as Grapevine and We Care of Grundy County to provide food for the remainder of the month.
Pershey said there is a misconception about SNAP recipients, that they are all using the system to make money. In reality, the system is not providing enough for them to survive.
“People who have never experienced poverty see it as a handout. They think it’s greed and not need,” Pershey said. “They’re not seeing the mass lines of people. They’re not seeing the individual person. They’re not seeing that mom who is trying to figure out how to feed her kids so they don’t go to bed hungry.”
Malone said she sees a lot of women, infant and children participants combining their benefits with SNAP to make ends meet.
She added that many of these programs have strict guidelines, not only about what a person can buy, but how often they are looking for work.
With more cuts to the SNAP program and more hungry mouths, Malone said it’s becoming harder to serve everyone in need.
“If SNAP was working perfectly, then we wouldn’t be here,” Pershey said.