Springfield News-Leader, May 3, 2008: As the price of food rises, more Ozarkers seek help

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Amos Bridges


Squeezed by rising costs for food and gasoline and a struggling economy, an increasing number of Ozarkers are seeking help feeding their families, area agencies say.

“Unfortunately, business keeps getting better and better,” said Rorie Orgeron, interim director of The Kitchen, Inc., which provides donated groceries and staples to people in need.

The Kitchen’s food warehouse has seen an average of 125 to 160 new households a month seeking assistance.

“We’re seeing lots of new people come into the pantry. We’re also seeing a lot of people coming back who hadn’t been in a couple years,” said Randy McCoy, coordinator of resident and social services for the agency.

The combination of rising costs and increased demand for help led the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to institute changes earlier this week in its Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Participants in the program must now use their WIC vouchers for store-brand cereal and juice, rather than more expensive name-brand varieties or juice in plastic bottles.

DHSS said the change was implemented to stretch program dollars in the wake of a 10 percent jump in food prices during the past six months. Participation in WIC increased 4 percent during the same time period.

The number of women enrolled in the program in Greene County has increased at an even greater rate.

In 2006 and 2007, enrollment during the month of February was about 5,600, said Jaci McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

In February 2008, more than 6,600 people received assistance.

McReynolds said the health department can’t say with absolute certainty that the economy is behind the almost 20 percent increase in demand.

Eligibility restrictions, for example, were raised this year so that a family of four can make up to $39,220 and remain eligible for WIC services, up from a cap of $37,000 in 2007.

“What we can tell you is we’re seeing an increase in these different areas … and people coming in are telling us it’s because of the crunch,” she said.

The state Food Stamps program, administered by the Department of Social Services, also has seen an increase in the average number of applications for assistance.

The monthly average so far in fiscal year 2008 has been 59,865, up from an average of 57,253 in FY2007 and 56,184 in FY2006.

“Our average for this year so far is higher than previous years,” said DSS spokeswoman Sara Anderson. She noted that slight fluctuations from year to year are normal, however.

Increased prices

McCoy said many of those seeking help at The Kitchen tell similar stories.

“The reason a lot of them are giving is increased prices of food and increased prices of gas,” he said, noting that there likely is significant overlap between those served by The Kitchen and the WIC and Food Stamps programs.

Randy Coble, the food pantry’s supervisor, said about 1,450 people came in for assistance in March, traditionally a slower month because many receive tax refunds in the spring.

There are other differences this year, however.

As gas prices have climbed, he’s seen more families carpooling to the pantry to pick up food. And Coble said he fields daily requests from people seeking rent or utility assistance.

“That used to be a winter thing,” he said. “But now we’re seeing that they’re still trying to get up (on their bills) and fend off a disconnect.”

Coble said he’s noticed more elderly residents seeking help and — as the financial struggle has worsened — more emotion.

“The level of desperation is going up,” he said. “It makes for an emotional roller-coaster.”

To make ends meet, more people are moving in with family or non-relatives to save on housing costs, Coble said. But living in close quarters can cause additional friction, on top of the financial stress many are experiencing.

That stress shows in different ways.

“One person comes in in tears, the next person is angry,” he said. “Then there’s pride — you can tell with some of them, they’re ashamed to ask for help …

“There’s as many stories as there are faces that come in the door.”

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