CHICAGO – As coronavirus started to spread across the region, panicked shoppers rushed to stores, stocking up canned foods, baby formula and toilet paper in bulk, clearing store shelves and leaving food shortages in their wake.
This put folks who live paycheck to paycheck or who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in a particularly vulnerable position. On a fixed income, they simply don’t have the means to stock up on essentials for an extended period of time like others do.
Many of the people on limited budgets are also people who are elderly or with compromised immune systems — the folks most susceptible to coronavirus who should limit frequent exposure to crowds at grocery stores.
“People are already concerned and feeling anxious about having enough money to last them for the month. And to add on top of that, there’s a lack of resources in grocery stores because people are hoarding,” said Stephen Barker, spokesman at Marillac St. Vincent, which operates two food pantries on the city’s North and West sides.
The barren shelves prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to tell people not to stockpile because it makes it more difficult for others to get their everyday supply of food.
“Please do not hoard food,” Pritzker said. “Buy what you need, but please be reasonable. Think of your friends and your neighbors.”
Before the pandemic, Marillac launched a pilot program called Eating For Life, a nutrition, food preparation, grocery shopping workshop series aimed at helping folks stretch each dollar spent on food to the fullest. Though Marillac’s food pantries at 2145 N. Halsted St. in Lincoln Park and 2859 W. Jackson Blvd. in East Garfield Park will remain open, they’ve canceled their workshop series because of the virus.
Participant Eva Skye, a senior who relies on a food-stamp allowance, said it’s been tough to find and afford enough food to store in case of a lockdown. As a vegan, a bulk of Skye’s diet is perishable fruits and veggies, which have been largely sold out in stores she’s visited along with the canned goods and frozen veggies she hoped to stock up on.
Skye has gone grocery shopping every few days to get the basics she needs to eat, even though public health officials recommended seniors like her stay inside the home and follow social distancing guidelines.
“It hasn’t been easy. I see shortages and empty shelves. I’m on food stamps and I see people with shopping carts full of stuff,” she said.
Skye empathizes with people who are hoarding food because many are acting out of fear. But she is worried that the panic will weigh most heavily on low-income people by making food scarce and leaving them no choice but to consume low-quality foods that offer little nutrition.
“You go to the store and what you really need is not there on the shelf. So you’re buying … things you don’t really need and are not as healthy,” she said.
The desire to stock up on items during an emergency is one that gives people the feeling they are in control, said Katherine Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists.
But there is a downside.
“You don’t want to do something that undermines other peoples’ ability to be prepared, like buying all the hand sanitizer,” Cowan said.
A push by the Trump administration was set to tighten the work requirement to qualify for the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program beginning April 1, which would have booted 700,000 people from receiving food stamps and reduced benefits for millions of others. But in light of the coronavirus pandemic, a judge blocked the order from taking effect to cushion people already vulnerable to the economic fallout from the outbreak.
Diana Rodriguez is a SNAP recipient who is used to being frugal with the food stamps. She used to receive significantly more from the program, but now receives only $16 a month, which she said makes her nervous about the food shortages and social distancing.
“It’s difficult because I’m 70 years old almost. I’m at risk because I’m diabetic. I try not to expose myself outside,” she said.
Since people her age are advised to avoid crowds, volunteers do Rodriguez’s shopping for her. She can’t afford to make huge trips to the grocery store, and for her health she prefers to eat fresh foods, so she restocks her fridge every few days. The volunteers have helped keep her safe from exposure, but with such a tight food budget, she isn’t sure what the future will hold as the situation changes for her.
“If you have $16 in your pocket from SNAP, what will you buy at Jewel? Not too much,” she said.
But even if she had more money to spend on food, Rodriguez said she would keep a cool head and refrain from hoarding supplies. Since everybody is dealing with the crisis together, it is important to keep the whole community safe by staying home, avoiding bars and restaurants, and shopping modestly so there’s enough food for everybody — especially the most vulnerable.
“People need to buy only one or two, but they buy 20. This is the problem. But this is the responsibility for each individual, the common sense,” she said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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