The Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), a food bank that supplies items to food pantries throughout the Chicago area, is working to help Austin and North Lawndale residents apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

The program provides debit cards that beneficiaries can use to buy food, as well as seeds and plants that can be grown into food. The eligibility requirements largely income-based, with income limits going up the more people live in a household. 

While providing food is a major part of the food depository’s mission, it also works to address root causes of hunger and helps clients apply for benefits such as SNAP.  

During the May 18 monthly meeting of North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s (NLCCC) Health and Wellness Committee, Sara Bechtold Medema, who heads the nonprofit’s public benefits outreach, said that her employer is looking to do more outreach in North Lawndale and Austin.  

They are reaching out to local community organizations to find out what barriers the residents face to apply for benefits and help them sign eligible residents up for SNAP. 

Food insecurity has been a recurring topic at the Health and Wellness Committee meetings, but it gained new urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. NLCCC and its member organizations organized multiple food giveaways and deliveries of regular “food boxes” to families. 

Bechtold Medema told the committee that SNAP doesn’t just help the beneficiaries. 

“We can never match the amount of help that SNAP provides,” she said, adding that the money helps businesses as much as it helps individuals and households. 

The Depository decided to focus on Austin, North Lawndale and South Side’s Englewood neighborhood because its research showed that those communities have a disproportionate number of people who didn’t apply for SNAP benefits.

The study found several reasons why eligible residents don’t apply. Bechtold Medema said that, in many cases, they may not know they are eligible in the first place. Those who do know may not apply, because they are either overwhelmed by the process, or because of the stigma against using food stamps. 

Another issue is that applicants need to apply at the offices of state agencies and/or nonprofits, which requires that they travel. The lack of reliable transportation and/or internet access, however, may keep them from getting to those places where they can fill out applications. 

Medema said that the food depository already helps clients sign up for SNAP and Medicaid, and they trained some of the nonprofits they work with to help clients with applications as well. With the new outreach, they want to take it to the next level.

“Our goal is to partner with two to three organizations from the community,” Bechtold Medema said. “We’ll help these partners build capacity, so they can offer services at the same level as the food depository.”

She said that building capacity would include “training, technical support, providing technology, helping them market services and some funding for initial assistance.” 

Debra Wesley, who serves as the committee’s chair and heads the Sinai Health System’s Sinai Community Institute, said that the health system would be interested in getting involved. 

“This is a big issue in our community, so whenever we can make those conditions better, we want to help,” she said. 

Interested North Lawndale organizations can sign up by filling out the form at

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...