A reduction in food stamp benefits began Friday, raising concerns for low-income Illinoisans.
Friday was the first day a temporary benefit from the 2009 economic stimulus bolstering food stamp money won't be available. That means a family of four could see up to $36 less a month through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps.
Jim Young, co-director of the Community Interfaith Food Pantry in Belleville, said the cut in food stamp benefits will hit his clientele hard.
"It will affect us tremendously," Young said Friday.
The need for food aid was already great before the cut in assistance, Young said.
Since last month, because of the region's sluggish economy, the rate for new food pantry customers had climbed 91 percent, he said.
"We're surviving," he said. "But sometimes we get down to two weeks'" worth of supplies, "but then that's it."
The Illinois Hunger Coalition says about 349,000 seniors and 886,000 children statewide will be affected.
The number of residents of St. Clair County, which covers some of the state's poorest ZIP codes, depending on S.N.A.P. surged 52 percent -- from 33,403 in 2003, to nearly 51,000 in 2013 -- for a food stamp participation rate of nearly 19 percent, Illinois Department of Human Services figures show.
In Madison County, S.N.A.P. participation grew by nearly 50 percent during the last decade -- from 21,376 in 2003 to 42,372 in 2013, for a county participation rate of nearly 16 percent, state figures show.
Meanwhile, this year Illinois reported the largest percentage increase, 10.5 percent, in S.N.A.P. participation of any state.
More than a record 2.02 million Illinois residents are receiving food stamps, for a participation rate of 15.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Experts blame the record number of food stamp recipients in the metro-east and Illinois, as well as the nation at large, on a mix of factors, including the national recession that began in 2008, a sluggish and uneven recovery and the proliferation of low-wage service jobs that replaced blue collar manufacturing jobs in recent years.