Families face new pressures as price of gas and food rises
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — An increasing number of families now find themselves in a terrible place: between the rock of rising food prices and the hard place of soaring gasoline prices.
These families’ budgets are stretched to the point of breaking, said Tamra Brandes, director of emergency assistance of Catholic Charities offices in Johnson County.
“When I talk about a stretched budget, I mean a budget that just doesn’t have any wiggle room,” said Brandes. “[It’s a budget] where you can just cover all of your expenses as long as nothing goes wrong, but the reality of life is that that’s a rarity.”
Many things can and do go wrong: Cars need repair, children get sick, companies reduce their workers’ hours to save benefit costs.
But the unexpected expenses that families could more easily absorb in good times are now forcing them to make a terrible choice: food or fuel?
“What we’ll see is a [parent] that may come in and they’ll say, ‘I have $10 in my pocket, and I get paid on Friday. But if I go to the grocery story and spend this $10, what will I do for gasoline to get back and forth to work for the rest of the week?’” said Brandes.
It’s not just a few families that are affected. Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas reports a 13 percent overall increase in families and individuals seeking free food in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area this past April and May over the same time last year. Some pantries have seen as low as a 5 percent increase, while others as high as 70 percent.
More significantly, said Brandes, Catholic Charities food pantries are seeing individuals who’ve never visited a food pantry in their lives.
One such person was a single mother, a realtor, who hadn’t sold a house in six months. Another was a woman who just discovered she was pregnant after she lost her job. Still another was a person who had to quit his job because he couldn’t afford the commute.
“We’ve been seeing this increase for the past year,” said Tom Edminster, program manager of family support in the Kansas City, Kan., office of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
And, like Brandes, Edminster is seeing a lot of new faces.
“We often hear, ‘I’ve never been here before,’ and ‘I don’t know how this works, but we need food,’” he said.
In Wyandotte County, most of the people seeking assistance at Catholic Charities food pantries live on disability or other fixed incomes. Many are renters, said Edminster, and now face the prospect of eviction.
“[Fuel] has to come out of the food or utility budget,” he said. “We see a lot of people who are facing utilities shut offs. In our community, we have massive BPU shut offs — you’re talking about 2,000 people can be shut off in a two-week period.”
Some have already had their gas service shut off for the summer, but hope to have it restored by winter. As fuel prices continue to soar, however, with projections predicting record highs again this winter, prospects for that are uncertain.
Christine Germann, director of the Village Presbyterian Food Pantry and Clothes Closet in Overland Park, is also seeing more first-time clients.
“To get food here, a person must have a referral from a social service agency,” said Germann, “so we don’t have a lot of working poor. But we’re getting more and more working poor, so we’re changing our policies so we can help them.”
“Another difference we’ve seen is in our requests for emergency food,” added Germann. “This is someone who needs food today or in a day or two. Just in the past month, we’ve noticed an increase, and those requests are from a lot of people who’ve never been to a food pantry before.”
Why is this happening? Germann points to a multitude of problems, but when you add up the increased costs of food and fuel, you’ve got an untenable situation for many working poor and even some middle class.
“We’re seeing people just being stretched so far that they’re asking for help when they’ve never had to do that in their lives before,” she said.
This across-the-board increase in demand for food pantry aid couldn’t have come at a worse time, say social service agency representatives. Typically, donations to food pantries drop during the summer, because most schools, churches and other organizations hold their food drives in the fall and winter.
Moreover, because school is not in session, the children of squeezed families are not even getting the free and reduced-cost lunches made available to them during the school year. Instead, the children are at home all day . . . and they’re hungry.
That is why Catholic Charities is encouraging individuals to volunteer at Catholic Charities offices, and for parishes and other organizations to conduct food drives, said Nancy Jenkins, director of communications for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
While some Catholic Charities clients may see their visit to the food pantry as a low point in their lives, it may actually represent the start of their climb back to security and stability.
“The lovely thing about Catholic Charities is that the food pantry is a resource for so many,” said Brandes. “We make itreally simple and user-friendly.”
“We try to make the process have a little dignity,” she continued. “And we try hard to sit down with each person . . . to visit with them for a minute and see if there is anything else we can do for them. Perhaps there is a way we can impact their lives by providing some other kind of assistance.”
For ways to help, visit Catholic Charities’ Web site at: catholiccharitiesks.org. Scroll down to the “Donate Now” or “Volunteer Now” buttons. Catholic Charities can also be contacted by calling (913) 384- 6608.