(The Center Square) – Millions of Illinois residents are living in food deserts without convenient access to nutrition, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed a bill to combat food insecurity with $20 million in taxpayer funding.
The Illinois Grocery Initiative, funded through a measure signed on Aug. 18, offers incentives for new or expanded grocery stores in underserved rural or urban areas, often called food deserts.
The bill also fuels research into food insecurity in a state, where at least 3 million residents are reported to live in food deserts without access to good nutrition, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Although food insecurity has spiked tremendously since the pandemic, representatives of the Northern Illinois Food Bank see the bill as a positive step.
“We’re excited when the state wants to invest in supporting our communities and our neighbors and especially those facing food insecurity,” Maeven Sipes, the agency’s chief philanthropy officer, told The Center Square.
Along with funds to encourage economic growth for grocery stores, research into food insecurity could help attack the problem, Sipes said.
“We really believe the more we know about our neighbors and our community and their needs, the more we are going to be able to design solutions,” she said.
Sipes explained that transportation issues often create obstacles to healthy food, forcing those in need to shop in neighborhood convenience stores. While this bill will not fund food banks or pantries, they too may benefit, she said. That’s because grocery stores often contribute excess stock.
“We are serving more neighbors now than ever,” Sipes said.
She puts the number of Northern Illinois Food Bank clients at approximately 490,000 every month for a 70 % increase since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even though things like unemployment are lower, especially than during the peak of the pandemic, with inflation and with reduced government benefits, neighbors are still having trouble getting everything that they need and stretching their budgets and using their limited resources,” Sipes said.
In the last year alone, the food bank has seen a 30% increase in demand for food, according to Sipes.
Hoping that the law will bring relief, Pritzker said in his news release the initiative “is the latest expansion of our holistic approach to ensuring Illinois families can reach the big building blocks of a good life.”
The release notes that the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will launch a study into the reasons for food insecurity and the growth of food deserts to better understand the problem.