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Disabilities and Food Insecurity in Cook County

In 2017, the Greater Chicago Food Depository released a report on food insecurity among adults with disabilities in Cook County.

The report found many obstacles to adequate nutrition for low-income adults with disabilities. It proposes program, partnership and policy recommendations to address this growing issue. High-level findings from the report are listed below.


Summary of Findings

Food insecurity is disproportionately high among adults with disabilities in Cook County, especially among working-age adults. Based on 2015 U.S. Census Current Population Survey data, an estimated 31% of households with a working-age member with a disability in the Chicago metro area are food insecure, compared to 8% of households with a working-age adult with no disabilities. Food insecure adults with disabilities are also more likely to experience higher levels of very low food security, the most severe category of lack of access. These data are on par with Illinois and national level figures.

Risk of food insecurity among adults with disabilities occurs in every Cook County community with hotspots throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Neighborhoods across Chicago and the suburbs show very high proportions of people with disabilities living in low-income households. While some areas mirror poverty patterns of the general population, several communities, particularly on the north side of Chicago, show considerably higher rates of low income among adults with disabilities than among those with no disabilities.

Low-income adults with disabilities face many obstacles in getting healthy diets, and current supports are not sufficient to provide for adequate nutrition. Barriers include inadequate financial resources to cover the full cost of living, lack of affordable and accessible transportation to get groceries home, difficulty accessing food assistance programs, difficulty obtaining food appropriate for special diets required by their medical conditions, and more. Several impactful food assistance programs serving low-income adults with disabilities operate in Cook County, yet taken together, they do not reach all in need. Areas on the west side of Chicago exhibit the highest need for additional food assistance resources, yet many neighborhoods across Chicago and the suburbs show inadequate coverage in terms of food assistance programs accessible to people with disabilities.

Low-income adults with disabilities across the age-spectrum need increased access to medically-tailored home delivered meal and grocery options at no or very low cost. Depending on the individual and the day, getting to and from food assistance programs can be very physically and mentally taxing, time consuming, and prohibitively expensive. Obtaining foods that accommodate the special diets required by one’s medical conditions can also be very challenging. Such medically-tailored meals and grocery categories include diabetic friendly, low vitamin K, allergy sensitive (e.g. no dairy, eggs, nuts, gluten), renal, low fat, and more, many of which are often more expensive and harder to find than less healthy alternatives. The consumer must be able to choose which meals or groceries they receive for this expanded capacity to be successful.

Improving accessibility at food assistance programs will alleviate barriers to food security and strengthen the network for all participants. Many study participants described being discouraged from using the emergency food assistance network in times of need due to uncomfortable and long wait times, outdoor lines in adverse weather conditions, lack of ramps and elevators at buildings, and uncertainty in what food items would be available. Providing additional assistance to improve accessibility will be necessary since resources of food assistance programs are already stretched extremely thin. Lessening these barriers to use of the emergency food system will support a more inclusive experience for all clients.

Connecting more people in need with food assistance requires increasing targeted outreach and communication directly with adults with disabilities and disability service providers. Study participants described how they and others they know often are not aware of what food resources are currently available to them or they receive conflicting information from different sources. Increasing the flow of updated information about the Food Depository’s network, Public Benefit Outreach Team, partnerships, and nutrition education resources through targeted touch points that reach low-income adults with disabilities will help bridge this information divide.

Passing a state budget that adequately funds human services is necessary to improve food security. Many organizations providing essential services to people with disabilities have been forced to lay off staff and cut back services due to the State of Illinois’ backlog of unpaid bills. Food insecurity never exists in isolation and threats to other basic needs such as healthcare, housing, and in-home assistants directly impact stable food access as well. The State of Illinois must pass a budget that helps stabilize the service landscape for programs needed by vulnerable populations in our state.

Protecting access to federal nutrition assistance programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is critically important to preventing an increase in food insecurity. In 2015, 30% of Cook County households with one or more persons with a disability received SNAP benefits, and this report estimates that SNAP provides at least 80% of the food assistance reaching adults with disabilities across Cook County. While research participants shared that the SNAP benefit amount they receive is often not sufficient to see them through the full month, many households with low-income adults with disabilities rely on the ongoing availability of federal nutrition assistance programs to supplement their diets with the foods necessary for their health. Food insecure households with low-income adults with disabilities severe enough to qualify for federal disability payments as well as those with more short-term or less severe disabilities need access to these programs. Charitable emergency food assistance could not replace this level of service if SNAP disappeared or eligibility for participation substantially narrows.

Partnering with local and state agencies, social service organizations, and healthcare entities that oversee and provide services to low-income adults with disabilities can provide important opportunities to reach more people struggling with food insecurity. Presently, health care, food assistance, and other service providers most commonly operate in siloes from one another despite serving complementary missions and having an overlapping client base. Working together to identify and to connect food insecure adults with disabilities with needed assistance can replace these siloes while adding efficiency and cost savings for all involved. It will also establish food insecurity as a prominent health concern for affected individuals.

Aligning diverse stakeholders behind policies that support food security among people with disabilities will most effectively leverage the power of our communities and the full spectrum of social services and community-based organizations. Research participants emphasized the interdependency of their health and well-being with access to adequate and appropriate nutrition, together with access to transportation, housing, education, and jobs. Developing collaborative program and advocacy efforts can help address gaps in service while forming the groundwork for a united message if policy makers propose legislation that directly or indirectly harms the food security of people with disabilities.

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