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Food Insecurity 01/31/18

Charleston Area Churches Food Pantry director Todd Foster works with food items at the pantry Jan. 31 in Charleston.

CHARLESTON -- Poverty in Coles County might have seen a dip last year, but poverty levels for families have gone in the opposite direction, based on U.S. Census Bureau poverty data.

And an analysis run by Eastern Illinois University professor Michael Gillespie showed that 14.5 percent of families in the county live in poverty, a jump from 13.9 percent in 2016. This continues a trend for this group. For more perspective, it was 13 percent in 2014.

For families with children, those numbers are even more critical. Poverty rose from 23.8 percent in 2016 to 24.1 percent last year for families with children.

Individuals have seen a dip from 22.3 percent in 2016 to 21.9 percent in 2017. Gillespie said this could be a result of the population decline, though.

These percentages represent the people living in federal poverty, which is defined by the amount of income earned annually. For example, the threshold for an individual is $11,880. For a family of four, it is $24,300 a year.

"The most frustrating part of it all is that families and especially families with children are just more and more vulnerable," Gillespie said. "It is increasingly expensive to be able to take care of a family. It is increasingly expensive to be able to make ends meet."

Gillespie said families are an important bellwether for any communities health and he said it is saddening to see more fall into poverty.

Both groups saw increases of less than a percent last year, but Gillespie noted this means a lot. Roughly 2 percent represents 100 to 200 families, he said.

These numbers also don't capture the full breadth of those in need in the community either. According to the data, 30 percent of families in the county are food insecure or lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and/or nutritious food. In 2016, 29.4 percent were food insecure.

For families with children, that number is at 46.5 percent. In 2016, 44.6 percent of families with children were food insecure.

These numbers are reflective of the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the local schools. In the Mattoon district, 57.6 percent of the entire student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch. For Charleston, that number is at 47.8 percent.

Tom Sherman, Mattoon assistant superintendent of business, said the percentage went up slightly from last year but has largely sat in the same percentile in past years. Todd Vilardo, Charleston superintendent, said the number of those eligible has historically gone up over the past 20 years.

Todd Foster, Charleston Area Churches Food Pantry director, said the food pantry has been seeing increased numbers of need in the area.

Foster said he is seeing more Eastern students, notably international students in need of food, though he sees a swath of people across the county.

He added they are seeing more older populations come in as well. Foster said these older generations are often having to take care of grandkids, which is problematic at that age when they often have a small fixed income.

Gillespie noted that these poverty numbers are likely not skewed much by incoming populations, e.g. Eastern students, partly because many students do not have families and also because many of them live on campus, which is not counted in the data.

These populations in poverty are community members, Gillespie stressed.

Several factors attribute to growing poverty levels. He said opportunities for work are leaving the area and hits to major employers like Eastern in recent years has exacerbated the issue.

"We don't have a huge base of employment opportunities that are diverse in this county," he said. "The two biggest employers are the hospital and the university and to make a good living wage at either one of those places you have to be highly educated professional or you have to be fortunate enough to be in one of the unionized positions where there is some wage protection."

Gillespie said that area is plentiful in service sector jobs that often don't pay well without protections.

"When the economic base is like that, it becomes pretty tenuous," he said.

The county's position in the area has an impact as well.

"Coles County is unique in the sense that it is not a gigantic county with a large population like Champaign is, but it is not a completely rural county where everybody sorts of lives remotely," Gillespie said.

The county is more micropolitan in that it "acts much like a hub for surrounding smaller counties, much like a central city acts for a suburb," Gillespie said. So, people are coming in for jobs, shopping, etc. and leaving.

"What does though is that allows people to come in, use some services, go to the hospital, do whatever, but then when they leave the county they are not a part of the population," Gillespie said. "The people who are left here, often times doing some of those (low-income service industry jobs)."

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Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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