The Journal News (New York), August 5, 2008: Editorial: Food for thought

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The squeeze is on for the family food budget. With milk prices rising faster than gas prices, those are higher number at the bottom of our cash register receipts and less in our wallets to pay for it.

Yet while many families can get by with some creative corner-cutting – stir fry instead of steak dinners, the Lotsa Pasta diet – or shifting dollars in the family budgets, others have little choice but to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. And they are doing so more and more. That has put a strain on them and other programs throughout the Lower Hudson Valley, staff writers Richard Liebson and Kevin Zawacki reported yesterday.

More than social cost

A growing food shortage is not one that affects “them.” It impacts all of us. Help with food expenditures keeps many families teetering above the social services net instead of plummeting into poverty. Public assistance – from food stamps to Medicaid – put pressure on county budgets, which turn back to the taxpayers.

Nutrition is key to health, especially for children. For humanitarian and fiscal sensibilities, it pays to help keep local food pantries stocked and needy families fed.

Soaring food and fuel prices – and a slowing economy – are just part of the picture. Children are out of school, and away from the subsidized breakfast and lunch programs that help poor families meet nutritional needs during the school year. Unfortunately, local pantries and coalitions report, summer is when donations dry up. Scout troops, other civic-minded groups and religious groups aren’t holding as many food drives. The free turkeys passed on from supermarket giveaways during Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t there.

The region’s unemployment rate grows, and those with jobs face stagnant salaries. Property taxes go up, even as home values drop. And people still have to feed their families.

Fuel prices are a big-picture item here. Diane Serratore, who heads People to People, Rockland’s largest food pantry, told the Editorial Board that she has many clients who are coming in without appointments, sometimes because that’s when they could get rides. She also has people inquiring, “Do you have a program where we can get money for gas?” she relayed. People to People’s offer: Take the food and use the money saved for gas. And the winter, and need for home heating fuel, isn’t even here yet.

Transportation costs have also pressed homebound food delivery programs like Meals on Wheels. A survey released last month by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging found that rising fuel costs are having a direct effect on volunteers, Journal News staff writer Khurram Saeed reported last month. Nearly three out of four agencies reported it was harder to retain volunteers, and 74 percent said it was more difficult to recruit them. Would-be volunteers’ own budgets are stretched thin, officials reported, and the reimbursements agencies planned aren’t enough to match today’s gas prices.

Clip ‘n’ save

Food programs themselves have gotten creative in meeting their clients’ needs. More food pantries will help clients apply for food stamps and other social services. Community Action Program of Rockland County’s Penny Save program collects coupons to pass on to their pantry clients. “We’re teaching families how to stretch their food dollars,” the program’s executive director, Vadeta Hanley, told the Editorial Board.

People to People has begun focusing more on “economic stability” with their clients, Serratore said. Volunteers who have been trained by social workers will review budgets and help decide where they can be trimmed. “Can you afford a land line and a cell phone? If not,” she said, “maybe one has to go.”

Such efforts are penny-wise. “If we can help them with food, maybe they’d be able to pay a bill,” Hanley said, or “pay their rent so they won’t be homeless” – a very real predicament in the Lower Hudson Valley where the housing stock is low and rents are high.

On its Web site, the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless, a clearinghouse for more than 140 emergency food providers and shelters, reports that last year, more than 5 million meals were served in “affluent” Westchester County – 50 percent of those for children.

Even with financial counseling and coupon clipping, the real need – for food and monetary donations, and volunteers – is there, more than ever. We must give what we can.

A Journal News editorial

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