Spotlight Exclusives

Food and Fuel, by Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston

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As the country moves deeper into the worst economic crisisin decades, many middle class Americans are developing new anxieties about jobsecurity, retirement, and sending their kids to college.  But for Americans struggling to survive low-incomeAmericans these grim times are not new. As food prices and heating costs continue to skyrocket, low-incomefamilies across the country face a tragic choice this winter between heatingtheir homes and putting enough food on the table.  If we do not take strong action now toaddress this impending crisis, we risk leaving millions of Americans out in thecold.

As Mayor of Boston, I have already seen the rising cost offood and gas tighten the vise on our city۪s low-income residents.  The United States Department of Agricultureestimates that food prices will rise five to six percent this year. That may not seem like much, but it would be the highest single year increasesince 1990.  Luxury or novelty foods arenot driving this trend, eitherit۪s basic items like dairy, eggs and poultrythat have been pushing prices higher.


Higher oil and gas costs have already taken a toll onlow-income Americans.  A recent study bythe Urban Institute estimates that in the New Englandalone, those in poverty spend a full 10 percent of their incomes on gas whenthe price exceeds four dollars per gallon, as it did for much of the summer.

This pain at the pump will soon be felt in heatingbills.  In its October 7 forecast, theEnergy Information Administration predicted that the cost of heating homes fromOctober to March (peak season) will increase across the board: 10 percent forelectricity, 11 percent for propane, 18 percent for natural gas, and astaggering 23 percent for heating oil.  Everyonewill feel these increases, but for those struggling to make it, the cost maysimply be too high.


The good news is that Congress voted to double heatingassistance for the coming winter.  Thebad news is that this may not be enough. City leaders around the country must fill in the gaps by providinglow-income residents with the tools and information to cope with cripplinglyhigh food and heating prices. 

In August, I announced the Food and Fuel Campaign, apreemptive measure to stem this crisis.  Thecampaign aims to raise awareness about ways to stay warm and well fed thiswinter and to mobilize previously untapped resources to do something about theproblem.  Our efforts have focused onforging public and private partnerships in order to broaden the campaign۪sreach by recruiting willing allies from around the community.


We kicked off the campaign in late September by hosting aFood and Fuel Summit with our partners which helped residents get theinformation they need to make it through the winter.  Partners presented practical advice on a widerange of topics: supermarkets offered tips on planning a smart grocery budget,utility companies provided instruction on how to claim heating assistance, and anantipoverty nonprofit provided financial literacy workshops. 

Following the summit, I have continued the campaign byinitiating a series of community dinners in specific neighborhoods.  These communal meals promote healthy and affordablefood options, build relationships between community members through activitiesand games, and connect residents to resources in their neighborhood.  That, and participants leave with a free bagof healthy groceries and a recipe for the meal they just ate.


The Food and Fuel Campaign addresses the food and heatingproblem at all levels.  For low-incomeresidents, this means raising money for those organizations that alreadyprovide heating assistance and working with private partners and the public toexpand food stamp enrollment.  We arealso targeting neighborhoods through energy efficiency programs, such as theHeatWorks program that prevents heating system emergencies.  Finally, we will partner with smallbusinesses that may have trouble covering energy bills and help them to buyenergy at lower costs.

I hope that the Food and Fuel Campaign is an example of howcomplex problems require complex solutions and many partners.  It also shows that, in responding to an emergency, we canstill make time to develop lasting solutions.  While direct funds for heatingassistance are important, the key for local leaders is to invest in communitiesso that they have capacity to provide adequate living conditions forresidents.  This means that governments,corporations, and other private enterprises must work together.  We have the resources to do something aboutthis problem, now and next winter.  Thequestion is how to turn potential solutions into sustainable action.


We can۪t allow the current emergency to preclude systemicchange.  We must change the system thatkeeps too many people one paycheck from disaster.  We have to feed people and develop sustainable agriculture.  We have to heat homes and develop alternative energy. The choice between whether to stay warm or eat dinner is not one anyAmerican should have to make.

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