09/21/2011 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

Hunger In Chicago: Study Shows 1 In 5 Chicagoans Aren't Sure Where They'll Find Their Next Meal

New data released Wednesday by the Greater Chicago Food Depository shows that just over 20 percent of Chicagoans face "food insecurity."

The data [PDF] reported a strong link between unemployment and food insecurity -- or hunger, particularly on the city's West and Southwest Sides and in several suburban areas.

The hardest hit community area within city limits was Riverdale, which reported a whopping 40.8 percent rate of food insecurity. Washington Park, Englewood and North Lawndale also ranked among the city's least food secure communities -- all registering rates above 30 percent. For comparison's sake, community areas Lakeview and Lincoln Park report food insecurity rates of 9.7 percent and 10.2 percent.

As for the Cook County suburbs, the average rate of food insecurity is estimated at 15.4 percent. Residents in several suburbs -- Ford Heights (55.5 percent), Robbins (45 percent) and Dixmoor (38.7 percent) -- faced rates that were much higher, however. Data on other community areas and suburbs are available here.

The group hopes the data will help them more effectively serve hungry Chicago-area residents where help is needed most urgently. They also hope the data will help them make a case for sustained support for federal nutrition programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program and SNAP, both of which face proposed cuts in the House's 2012 budget.

"We continue to see unacceptably high numbers of people who are food insecure in these difficult economic times," Greater Chicago Food Depository CEO and executive director Kate Maehr said in a statement. "These new findings will help us intensify our food distribution and program outreach to communities most in need."

Food insecurity is defined, on the less extreme end, as reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. One exhibiting very low food security would report disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

The new report piggybacks off the U.S. Census Bureau's release of data showing that Illinois is following a national trend of soaring poverty and unemployment rates. As of 2010, more than 1.82 million Illinoisans are living at or below the poverty line -- a marked increase over the previous year. The number of long-term unemployed Illinoisans is also nearing its record high.

In response to that data, a Greater Chicago Food Depository spokesman noted that, over the course of the most recent fiscal year, his organization serviced 5.1 million individual visits -- up drastically from 3.2 million visits three years ago.

In a blog post released by the group, Wendy Vasquez, Ravenswood Community Services executive director, said her pantry has also noticed "an incredible spike this summer." On one recent night, the pantry provided groceries to 400 people or households.

“It feels like most people are becoming less optimistic," Vasquez said. "Those who've lost their jobs and have gone without work for a long time are losing hope. There are anecdotal stories of good 'new job' news, but those seem to be limited."

More detailed data relating to income, poverty and health insurance coverage among Chicago and Cook County residents is expected to be released by the Heartland Alliance Thursday.

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr.