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Ajai Sreevatsan/MEDILL

Last week, seven member of the Greater Chicago Food Depository decided to walk the talk and decided to eat on $5 a day. Here's Steven McCullough, vice president of community partnerships, talking about the experience.

800,000 in Greater Chicago eat on $5 a day; Last week, there were seven more

by Ajai Sreevatsan
Jan 24, 2013

food insecurity

Prepared by the Chicago Food Depository.

Neighborhoods on the South Side and West Side face the highest levels of hunger.

What is it like to go hungry to bed on a cold night in Chicago?

Angel La Luz had his first taste of it last week. He had made a commitment to eat on $35, the average weekly assistance under the food stamps program.

“I was constantly worried that I would run out of food,” said La Luz, vice president of volunteer engagement at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “The ability to have a different meal at different times was also taken away. My dinner became my lunch the next day or the next several days.”

In effect, for one week, La Luz, along with six of his colleagues, stepped into the world of the one in six residents of the Chicago area who suffer from nutritional deficiency – or more than 800,000 men, women and children, according to a 2012 survey by Feeding America, an advocacy group.

Following the economic downturn, many people who thought they would never rely on these programs are being forced to, said La Luz.

The number of food stamp recipients has shot up by 30 percent since 2007 in Cook County, according to U.S. Census figures.

Nutritional deficiency can cause several serious long-term problems. “It is important to maintain a balanced diet,” said Lubna Saleh, a nutritionist who raised several red flags after looking at the food intake of those who took the $35 challenge.

“When you don’t eat the recommended servings, you can put yourself at risk of chronic diseases over time – such as cancer and heart disease,” Saleh said.

Those problems are already manifesting in Chicago. The death rate in the city’s five poorest neighborhoods is 43 percent higher than the citywide average.

Diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases claim a majority of lives. Even in the most violent neighborhoods, homicide accounts for only 4 percent of all deaths, according to figures from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Life expectancy in low-income neighborhoods such as Garfield Park and Austin are poor not so much because of guns, but because a third of the residents suffer from nutritional deficiency.

“We absolutely acknowledge that chronic diseases are the ones killing people,” said Roderick Jones, director of epidemiology at the Chicago Department of Public Health. “It’s very geographic and demographic. It is affecting young people.”

Thus, much of it seems to come down to whether there is food on the plate.

“We are very interested in broader changes,” Jones said. “Chicago is looking at New York as a model – in terms of how they deal with poverty and segregation.”