Austin American-Statesman, March 10, 2008: Rising food prices pinching low-income people and food banks

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Mary Ornales’ food stamps don’t last long these days.

Six months ago, the monthly allotment from the federal food program fed the South Austin mother and her four young children for the whole month. Now, it barely stretches three weeks.

“I feel like it’s going faster, and I have to buy more things myself,” said Ornales, 25.

Across the country, low-income families are struggling with rising food costs. Last year, escalating gas prices along with the increasing cost of corn and other farming supplies contributed to higher transportation and packaging costs. The result was a 5.8 percent increase in food prices in major cities across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In January 2007, a gallon of skim milk cost $3.17 at H-E-B. A year later, the price had jumped to $4.29.

Sticker shock at the supermarket is forcing families to make tough choices. Some are changing the types of food they buy; others are cutting down on the quantity. Many people are hitting local food pantries, which give away groceries, forcing nonprofit groups to restock their shelves faster.

The Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, the major food supplier to Austin’s nonprofit pantries, has its own worries.

Although 82 percent of the food bank’s groceries are donated, the agency still buys several million pounds of food each year. Now, that food is more expensive as is the gas the agency uses to deliver it.

In 2007, the food bank spent $88,171 on gasoline $10,477 more than in 2006. That extra money spent on gas translates into more than 13,000 meals the food bank could not buy.

Meanwhile, food stamp allocations aren’t keeping pace with the price of groceries, said Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on policies affecting low-income people in Texas.

The federal food stamp program helps low-income people buy groceries. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program allocates a monthly dollar amount to each family every October. That number stays the same all year, no matter how food prices fluctuate.

“Food stamps are only adjusted once a year for inflation,” Hagert said. The Agriculture Department “sets the amount people get on Oct. 1, and they don’t change it in between as a rule.”

Ornales, a stay-at-home single mom who cleans houses for extra cash, is trying to stretch her federal food aid by purchasing generic brand food for her children, who range in age from 1 to 7. Ornales says she hasn’t turned to food pantries for extra help. But many other people are doing just that.

From September 2007 through January, Caritas a nonprofit group that helps homeless and low-income people in Austin distributed 2,139 vouchers for its food pantry, a 38 percent increase from the same time period the year before.

We’re sending out food as fast as we can get it,” said Beth Atherton, executive director of Caritas.

At El Buen Samaritano, which helps working poor Hispanic people, 13,277 people visited the group’s food pantry in 2007, a 6.4 percent increase from the year before.

Meanwhile, the number of food pantry clients ofSt. Ignatius, Martyr, Catholic Church has increased5.6 percent in the past two months. The church now gives food to 950 families a month, up from 900, food pantry Director Tony Ross said.

“People are really hurting right now,” he said.

Food bank officials are also worried that donations may start to dry up as people start pinching pennies.

“Obviously, if food costs more, it’s going to reduce donations,” said Kerri Qunell, a spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank. “It’s a snowball effect.”

Local food pantries are trying to meet the increasing demand for food by soliciting more donations. From October 2007 through January, Caritas held 190 food drives, a 98 percent increase from the same time period a year earlier. That work has paid off. During those four months, the group collected 57,919 pounds of food a 78 percent increase from the year before.

Those who don’t go to food pantries are finding other ways to cope.

Lupe Hernandez, who is 85 and lives on a fixed income, says she often has to forgo grapes and oranges in favor of whatever is on sale. She’s eating more beans and cheese instead of lean meat or ribs.

“It’s been subtle, but prices are getting really bad,” said Bart Tuthill, a Meals on Wheels volunteer who shops for Hernandez’s groceries.

South Austin retiree Clara Tennyson, 76, says she’s starting to cut other expenses so she won’t have to buy fewer groceries.

“I don’t buy less food because of my health,” Tennyson said. “I need shoes and clothes, but I can’t afford it, so I don’t buy them.”; 912-2506

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