Rural areas worry about food stamp cuts

Dec 2, 2013

The town of Sandoval, Ill., was born along U.S. Route 51, which runs north-south from Kentucky to the state of Wisconsin. Once a booming corridor, this area in southern Illinois now sees extreme poverty.
The town of Sandoval, Ill., was born along U.S. Route 51, which runs north-south from Kentucky to the state of Wisconsin. Once a booming corridor, this area in southern Illinois now sees extreme poverty.
Credit Peter Gray / Harvest Public Media

The next farm bill is all but certain to contain cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. Long championed by legislators from urban districts, the food stamp program isn’t just an urban concern. Families living amid fertile farmland struggle to put food on the table and increasingly rely on SNAP benefits. 

Since the year 2000, the number of rural counties experiencing high poverty has gone up nearly 30 percent. Limited access to public transit, support programs and financial education are big problems in many rural communities, according to researcher Craig Gundersen at the University of Illinois in Urbana, who tracks hunger and food stamp issues.

“There are a lot of rural areas with a great deal of challenges,” Gundersen said.  “Especially in some very small rural counties; there are definitely pockets of rural counties with really high unemployment rates, really high poverty rates.”

The SNAP budget is part of the farm bill, and with heated farm bill negotiations in progress, it’s not yet clear how food stamp recipients will fare when the program’s next budget is finalized.  One proposal would trim the food stamp program by $4 billion over the next decade; the other would cut roughly ten times that much. And that comes after the Obama Administration’s recession-era boost to SNAP expired Nov. 1, leaving the average family with about $30 less to spend each month.

Marion County, in far southern Illinois, has a higher percentage of food stamp eligibility than the city of Chicago and is one of many rural counties across the Midwest that depend on the SNAP program – One of five families there qualifies for SNAP.

Thirty-six-year-old Becky Miller is the head of one such family. The divorced mother of two girls lives and works in Sandoval, Ill., where she makes $9.00 per hour at a daycare center.  She relies on $200 each month in SNAP benefits to feed her kids, and says other forms of aid aren’t easy to come by. 

“You can usually go to churches, but if you need any help, it’s such a struggle around here to get help.” Miller said.

Children attending area public schools can get some help from Kathy Donnelly. The truancy coordinator employed by the school district each year sees 100 to 200 families facing poverty and hunger. She takes donations and uses grant funds to provide backpacks, hygiene products, food and clothes -- anything to keep kids of the unemployed or working poor in school. 

Donnelly says many of the families she deals with don’t have a vehicle, so whether they are getting SNAP benefits or not, it’s not easy for them to get access to healthy food.

“The only public transportation that we have in the area is a transit system that costs a boatload of money to be able to ride,” Donnelly said.  “So that’s kind of a dead end.  So a lot of these people are on foot.”

The cost of transportation is also an issue for rural food pantries, where keeping shelves stocked means paying to fuel up trucks sent to the regional food banks in big cities, some hundreds of miles away.

The city of St. Louis, Ill., has about 80 food pantries, while Marion County has just eight. Pastors Kim and Curt Matthews in Odin, Ill., – population 1,000 -- run one of them. They’ve watched their list of families in need grow from 50 to 450 in the past 16 years, and Kim Matthews says they’re bracing for even greater need.

“Because of the issues of the food stamps being cut the first of November,” Matthews said. “I mean, I cannot even tell you how many families told me ‘We get nothing now, they cut us totally off. No food stamps.’”

With more cuts now looming in Washington, D.C., this rural safety net may be stretched even further.