Rising food costs leave many people hungry for holidays

Gina Maldonado

Increased demand, struggling economy hurts food pantries

At a time when food pantries have a great demand, they are receiving the least donations.

“There is no such thing as a shortage of food,” said Gloria Prendergast, director of community involvement for United Way of Portage County. “There’s a shortage of people who can afford food.”

Although grocery stores have plenty of food, decreased donations continue affecting United Way’s season of giving to people who need help.

Local emergency food cupboards and food banks have less food this year. These same cupboards and banks also have dramatic increases of people who need food, Prendergast said.

An increase in demand

In early November, Kent State students collected 3,000 pounds of food for the Volunteer Administrator’s Network. Chris Hook, Kent State student and collection organizer, filled his mother’s 4-door Kia Sedona minivan with boxes of food.

All-in all, the 2008 Change Hunger Campaign collected a total of 16,000 pounds of food. The network spread the food out among several cupboards and it was gone in only two weeks Prendergast said.

According to Portage County’s Comparison of Requests for Basic Needs, food services requested rose between 2007 and 2008 from 2,498 to 3,716.

These statistics also show other increased basic needs: housing, material resources, temporary financial aid and transportation. But food assistance remains the most requested service from United Way.

Decreased economy

Higher utility bills, mortgage or rent payments and fluctuating gas prices leave little wriggle room in people’s budgets. Because of this, food bank workers said people usually skim on their food budgets to make ends meet .

“We see almost double the amount of people, from 45 to 75 a month,” said Ruth Stephens, Randolph/Suffield Atwater Food Pantry worker.

According to a U.S. Department of Labor 2008 Consumer Price Index Summary Economic News Release, food and beverage expenditures rose from .4 in February 2008 to 5.9 in August 2008. A special index within the category documented food prices also increased from .4 to 6.1 within the same time period.

Within that statistic, The Bureau of Labor reports prices increased for basic foods such as bread, milk and eggs anywhere from 16.3 to 34.8 percent.

As a result, companies are ordering less food for parties, which means fewer donated leftovers. And local grocery stores are buying less food, which means less produce donations, Stiles said.

“It’s a perfect storm with the downturn in the economy and the increase in food prices, people have to make choices, and this is where they go to get help,” said Judy Kirman, co-chair of Change Hunger of Portage County.

The Working Class

“I see people who had been our donors now are coming in,” said Center of Hope’s Sister Denise Stiles.

United Way workers and cupboard volunteers all said the new group of people seeking food donations are working-class people. The working-class are budgeting food pantry visits into their monthly expenditures, further stretching pantry supplies.

A working-class family of four can make no more than $21,200 a year, which is the federal poverty level, to qualify for food stamps.

“Income guidelines for food stamps is dirt poor,” Prendergast said.

What Now

Without government assistance many families will continue visiting food cupboards this holiday season, and if they are lucky, the cupboards won’t be bare.

“Holiday (food) sign-ups are over for special holiday baskets and gifts,” Kirman said.

Numbers of people served per month at the following food cupboards increased from

January to October

&bull Brimfield Community Cupboard: 139 people to 235 people

&bull Crestwood Four C’s: 266 people to 365 people

&bull Randolph/Suffield Atwater

Foodshelf: 167 people to 251 people

&bull Streetsboro Community Cupboard: 87 people to 300 people

Contact social services reporter Gina Maldonado at [email protected].