Tuscaloosa News, May 11, 2008: Rising food costs take toll on charities, needy

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By Lydia Seabol Avant
Staff writer

TUSCALOOSA | The rising cost of food isn’t just affecting people’s grocery bills at home. It’s also hitting local food banks, soup kitchens and the number of people who sign up for food assistance.

With gas prices also at record highs, people living at or under the poverty level are bearing the brunt.

‘We are constantly being told by people that they just can’t make ends meet anymore because of the price of gas and groceries costing what they do,’ said Judy Young, director of the Tuscaloosa County office of the Alabama Department of Human Resources. ‘A lot of people are coming in who thought they would never have to apply for food stamps.’

In the last year, the overall price of food jumped 4.5 percent, with the cost of certain staples, such as rice, skyrocketing, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The price of eggs has jumped 30 percent and milk has increased 13 percent.

Those numbers are borne out in Tuscaloosa County, where the number of households now depending on government help to buy food is growing.

About 7,000 families in Tuscaloosa County now receive food stamps an increase of almost 5 percent from last year. The number of people who receive food assistance through the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, also known as WIC, has increased by 14 percent. About 4,400 households now receive food through the WIC program.

Statewide, from March 2007 to March this year, the number of WIC participants grew from 124,000 to 134,000, according to DHR.

‘The numbers [of participants] have gone up every month, but with the rising cost of food, it’s going to go up,’ said Renee Cole, area nutrition director with DHR.

The majority of those families are working poor, people who use their money to buy gas to get to work, Young said. They have to get to work to make money, but then use the money to get to work. That means they have to turn to government or local charities for help feeding themselves and their families.

About 65 agencies and charities in nine Alabama counties regularly get food staples from the West Alabama Food Bank in Tuscaloosa that they then distribute to the needy. The food bank disburses about 110,000 pounds of food each month.

But the cost of food has impacted how much of it charities can afford.

The food bank takes donated nonperishable items, along with government staples and items purchased from wholesale grocery distributors, and then sells the food to local nonprofits at cost, sometimes as cheap as 16 cents a pound. But, because the overall cost of food is going up, it means that local charities can’t get as much for their dollar as they used to.

‘When we have to buy food at higher prices, we have to pass it on to our agencies,’ said Henry Lipsey, executive director of the West Alabama Food Bank. ‘They’ve been accustomed to buying $500 of food a month from us, but that same amount of food is now costing them $700 or $800. It’s putting a bind on them.’

The Salvation Army serves food to people staying in its shelters, but also distributes food to needy people in the community.

During the spring, the weather is typically so mild that the shelters aren’t full. But this year, both the men’s and the women’s shelters have been operating at capacity for the last couple of months, said Debbie Williams, social service coordinator for the Salvation Army in Tuscaloosa.

Because more people are being served meals at the shelter, the Salvation Army’s food costs are up. Therefore, the amount of food available in the food pantry, which depends heavily on donations, is also running low.

‘We typically like to provide meal items like stew, chili and soups, and vegetables,’ Williams said. ‘But sometimes all we have is vegetables and that is all we can give. But that is still a blessing.’

Williams said she did not know why the shelter has been operating at capacity lately, but feeding those who are staying in the shelter is their top priority, she said. Distributing food from the food pantry to the community comes second.

‘As prices get higher and higher, it gets harder to get by,’ said Williams. ‘I think the effects are going to get worse as the gas prices continue to go up, and we are trying to brace ourselves for that.’

The Salvation Army, along with other charitable organizations, is hoping that more people will donate.

Saturday was the 16th annual Letter Carriers Food Drive, when residents across Tuscaloosa County left canned goods and other non-perishable food items by their mail box to be picked up by their mail carriers. The food was then collected by the West Alabama Food Bank.

As of Friday, Lipsey said he expected about 40,000 pounds of food to be collected, which will last about six to eight weeks.

The donations are important to local charities, because grocery store prices have hit them hard.

Although the food pantry at St. Marks United Methodist Church is still well stocked, the cost to run the pantry has gone up some, primarily because of items like juice, cookies, graham crackers and fruit that the pantry buys at the grocery store because they aren’t always available through the food bank, said volunteer Nancy Blewitt.

Billy Ray, co-director of the Christian Ministry Center, said the items they buy from the grocery stores have had the biggest impact, cost-wise.

‘So far we have had enough funds to buy what we buy,’ Ray said. ‘But the higher prices does affect us, with stuff we have to buy like flour, sugar and meal.

‘It’s not as bad as when we first started out 13 years ago, when we had to give what we could get.’

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