Chicagoans can access free food through food stamps and local food pantries, but eligibility requirements vary. Here’s how you can get food regardless of your immigration or citizenship status in Chicago.
In Chicago, 33% of Black and 32% of Latino families with children face food insecurity and hunger, more than double the rate of white families, according to a recent report from the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Across the city, a handful of programs can help people access free food, money and benefits to buy food, but the requirements vary. Borderless put together a resource guide to help you find eligible programs based on your citizenship or immigration status, income level, housing status and other factors.
This guide is just a starting point for understanding available options. Borderless suggests contacting a local community organization or food pantry with legal services to get individualized help applying for free food and food benefits in Illinois.
For instance, the Northern Illinois Food Bank has a hotline to help people apply for food stamps. The group can be reached by phone at 844-600-SNAP (7627). The hotline is toll-free and open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. You can also schedule a free online appointment in English or Spanish with the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
Some food pantries also provide services to help fill out food benefit program applications. You can use this map from the Greater Chicago Food Depository to find a food pantry near you and to see if they provide SNAP application services. Borderless also compiled a list of food pantries and mutual aid organizations that distribute food, pantry supplies and other necessities that you can find here.
To get an idea of the programs we mention in this guide, here is a brief description of a few options in Chicago:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, offers individuals access to a debit card to buy food.
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a program for unemployed, low-wage, expecting parents or parents with children 18 or younger. TANF provides cash assistance for food or other necessities such as clothing or housing.
- Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program is for expecting parents or parents with children aged 5 or younger and provides a debit card to buy particular “healthy” foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, cereal or milk.
- Food Pantries are located in neighborhoods across the city; some run in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, while others are run by local mutual aid organizations.
- Pantries run through the Greater Chicago Food Depository have varying requirements for IDs and proof of residence. Still, the registration process is informational, and anyone can receive food from a GCFD food pantry.
- Mutual aid and community-led pantries typically do not have any registration requirements and may have fewer distributions.
Are you eligible for Illinois’ state-run food benefits? First, check if you meet state income requirements.
Each of these programs has different income requirements. You can check if you’re eligible for SNAP through Illinois’ Department of Human Services SNAP Eligibility Calculator or this online, non-government-associated SNAP and WIC Eligibility Screener.
TANF’s income eligibility guidelines are based on your total income and household size. Eligibility for TANF is calculated by taking the total income and subtracting something known as an Initial Employment Deduction (IED), which is based on family size. For example, a two-person household, an adult and child, qualifies if their total monthly income after the IED is less than $458. A family of four is eligible if their monthly income after IED is less than $694. For more information on income eligibility, click here.
For parents and families, you may be eligible for programs like TANF and WIC.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are programs meant to support parents and families with accessing food.
WIC is a program geared toward new families. It is only open to those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, new mothers, or are a parent, guardian or foster parent of an infant or child five years old or younger.
TANF is open to parents, foster parents or guardians with children 18 years old or younger.
Eligibility for both TANF and WIC depends on the income guidelines listed and your citizenship or immigration status.
For people who aren’t parents or who have adult children, you may be eligible for SNAP.
Illinois’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the only food benefits program currently available for folks who aren’t parents or expecting parents.
Eligibility for SNAP also depends on the income guidelines listed and your citizenship or immigration status.
Lastly, eligibility for Illinois’ food assistance programs depends on your citizenship or immigrant status.
Citizenship or immigrant status, along with your income, determines whether or not you can apply for Illinois’ food benefits programs. In this section of the resource guide, you can scroll to find which description matches your situation to learn which programs you might be eligible for.
If I have a Green Card, what food options can I apply for?
If you have a permanent residency card, also known as a Green Card, you can apply for WIC. You can apply for Illinois’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or TANF if you have:
- Lived in the U.S. for at least five years or
- Have at least 40 quarters, or 10 years, of qualifying work. (Qualifying work includes the time your parents worked legally in the U.S. when you were under 18, and the time you and your spouse have worked legally in the U.S.)
There are some exceptions to the five-year residency requirement for SNAP. Green Card holders may be eligible for SNAP even if they haven’t been in the U.S. for five years if they are:
- Blind or disabled
- Veterans or active members of the U.S. military and their dependents
- Under 18 years old
- Over the age of 65 and have lawfully resided in the U.S. since Aug. 22, 1996
If I have Temporary Protective Status, what food options can I apply for?
People with Temporary Protected Status are ineligible to apply for food stamps (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs.
However, your immigration status does not impact your eligibility for the Women, Infants and Children program. You may also get free food from your local food pantry.
If I have parole status, can I access food programs in Illinois?
If you are an immigration parolee, you can immediately apply for WIC.
However, to apply for food stamps (SNAP) and TANF, you must have been paroled for at least one year in the U.S. After one year as a parolee, there is an additional five-year waiting period or you must have 40 quarters, or 10 years, of qualifying work to be eligible for SNAP benefits. Qualifying work includes the time your parents worked legally in the U.S. when you were under 18, and the time you and your spouse have worked legally in the U.S. TANF also requires you to have at least 40 qualifying quarters of work to be eligible for benefits.
The five-year waiting period for SNAP starts from the date you entered your status as a parolee.
You may be able to bypass the SNAP program’s five-year waiting period if you are:
- Under 18 years old
- Over 65 years old and lawfully resided in the U.S. before August 22, 1996
- Blind or disabled
- On active duty in the military or are an honorably discharged veteran
If I have applied for asylum, what food options can I get?
You could apply for food stamps (SNAP), TANF and WIC if you received asylum. However, you may not be eligible for these programs if you are waiting for a decision on your asylum application.
If my child is a U.S. citizen, but I’m not, what food options do I have?
Regardless of your citizenship status, if your child is a U.S. citizen, you can apply for food stamps (SNAP) or TANF on their behalf. You can also apply for WIC.
Can I get food at a food pantry if I don’t have a U.S. ID?
Each food pantry has different policies for requiring a U.S. ID. In many cases, you will only need proof of residence to receive food at a food pantry, such as a letter from a shelter or a phone or utility bill. However, most pantries will provide you with food regardless of your ability to provide formal documentation.
Other informal food providers, such as community organizations or mutual aid groups, often do not require an ID to access food.
Check out Borderless’ list of food pantries organized by Chicago’s 77 community areas to find a food pantry near you. The resource guide includes contact information for each food pantry. You can call them to find out their ID requirements.
I am a Cuban or Haitian entrant as defined in 501(e) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980. Where can I get food?
You can apply for SNAP, TANF, or WIC.
I am an Iraqi or Afghan special immigrant under Section 101(a)(27) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Where can I get food?
You can apply for SNAP, TANF, or WIC.
I don’t have a SSN. Where can I get food?
If you do not have a Social Security number, you are not eligible to apply for food stamps (SNAP) or the TANF programs. However, you can get free food or pantry items at your local food pantry, community organizations, or mutual aid groups.
Check out Borderless’ list of food pantries organized by Chicago’s 77 community areas to find a food pantry near you. The resource guide includes contact information for each food pantry. You can call them to find their ID requirements, but most do not require you to provide ID and will give you food regardless of your immigration status.
I am staying at a migrant shelter. Where can I get food?
You are not eligible for food stamps (SNAP) or most other food benefits programs if you recently arrived in the United States and are undocumented, have TPS or are awaiting a decision on your asylum case. However, if you are staying in a shelter and your immigration status was mentioned above, you can request a letter confirming your residency from your shelter and use their address for your application to receive your benefits, which are typically delivered by mail. Be sure to speak with the shelter’s manager about their policies on helping residents apply for benefits.
You can also get free food or pantry items at your local food pantry, from community organizations, or mutual aid groups. You can find a list here.
Food pantries might ask for information about where you reside, but you can request a shelter staff member for a letter confirming your residency. You can use that letter from your shelter to verify your residence and access food at a pantry near you. Still, most pantries provide free food regardless of your ability to confirm your current residence. Identification is not required.
Community organizations and mutual aid groups typically do not require proof of residency to access free food but do not hold distributions as often as other pantries.
Check out Borderless’ list of food pantries organized by Chicago’s 77 community areas to find a food pantry near you. The resource guide includes contact information for each food pantry. You can call them to find their ID requirements, but most do not require you to provide ID and will give you food regardless.
I don’t have a permanent address. Where can I get food?
If you are houseless or do not have a permanent address, there are still ways to apply for food benefits. If you are staying in a shelter, you can ask your shelter for a letter confirming residency and then use the shelter’s address for your application to receive your benefits, which are typically delivered by mail.
If you are not staying in a shelter or do not have an address where you can receive mail, you can also designate a family member, friend or caseworker as your “authorized representative” to fill out your SNAP application and access your benefits.
State of Illinois, P.O. Box 19138, Springfield, IL 62794-9138
This story is for information purposes only. Borderless Magazine does not provide legal assistance or legal advice.