As temperatures begin to cool and leaves begin to fall many people start to look forward to autumn and winter. But for many, the colder months can be stressful as the cost of everyday living goes up with colder temperatures.
Heating costs usually go up during this time of year, if you use natural gas to heat your home, experts are saying natural gas prices are expected to be higher than normal.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a government agency that collects, analyzes and disseminates independent statistics and analysis says to expect higher-than-average natural gas prices globally as demand is up and inventory is low.
Add rising heating costs to rising food prices and it makes for a bleak winter for those who struggle with food insecurity.
In Loudoun County between 15,000 and 17,000 people could be food insecure. Meaning they might not have enough money to get groceries before they get their next paycheck or they don’t have enough healthy food to feed their family or they are maybe making hard decisions like paying their rent or mortgage or over buying food, according to Loudoun Hunger Relief President and CEO Jennifer Montgomery.
September is Hunger Action Month-a month long campaign started by Feeding America to bring people together to end hunger. Loudoun Hunger Relief has hosted events, like the empty bowl event on Sept. 15 as well as provide educational and volunteer opportunities all month long.
Montgomery said September is a great month to bring attention to the issue but pointed out people are hungry every month.
“The goal is to come together and advocate and find ways to help year-round. People have to eat every day and making sure people have access to nutritious foods is important every day at every meal,” said Montgomery.
Blue Ridge Area Food Bank CEO, Michael McKee agrees and believes getting the word out in September can help keep the awareness going strong through the colder months.
“This time of year, you see a seasonal spike in demand because in the less tempered parts of country the cost of everything goes up, including heating and fuel. The financial demands on those who are financially insecure skyrocket through the winter months,” said McKee.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank serves 25 counties on both sides of the Blue Ridge mountains. They are the largest organization working to relieve hunger in western and central Virginia, serving over 12,000 square miles and working with more than 400 community partners like Loudoun Hunger Relief.
Stats from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank show food costs are up 11.4%, the biggest annual increase since 1979. As food prices continue to rise, more people are turning to the Food Bank for help. Single mothers represent the largest share of adults using food assistance programs in the region. Single moms are often earning lower wages while dealing with heighted childcare costs and rising food costs.
Both McKee and Montgomery have said they have seen first-hand how inflation is affecting families and leading to greater needs at food banks.
Montgomery said before COVID they helped about 250 families a week. During the height of the pandemic, it jumped to 1,000 families. She said numbers went down as things started to normalize but went up again last spring as inflation rose. She said they now directly help around 700 families a week, about 2,800 people a week. She said that doesn’t include the food they give to other programs.
“Inflation is a challenge; food prices continue to rise faster than other things. If you were already living paycheck to paycheck add in high gas prices and it puts you over the edge. Inflation is affecting everyone some more than others and we are here to help,” said Montgomery.
McKee said during the pandemic the federal government doubled its amount of food to banks through the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program or TEFAP. But this year they scaled back to their normal assistance.
“But the problem is the numbers of people seeking food assistance are not back to normal. Food is at a higher cost than last year. Staples are 15-30% more expensive,” said Mckee.
He said they have partnerships with grocery stores both locally and on the corporate level which allows their partners like Loudoun Hunger Relief to directly pick up perishable items like breads, produce, and frozen meats from stores to help those in need offset the effects of inflation.
“But again, we are spending more money to buy food,” said McKee.
He said they have a budget of over $2 million to purchase food but two weeks ago he approved an additional $400,000 to help with costs going into colder weather.
McKee said about half the population they serve are vulnerable-children and senior citizens.
He said children need good nutrition because their brains and bodies are developing. He said if they aren’t getting adequate nutrition, they are typically at risk for falling behind in school and potentially continuing the cycle.
Senior citizens are the other vulnerable population because as we age we are likely to encounter various health problems and good food and nutrition is key to staying healthy.
He said partnerships between pantries and local growers like the partnership between JK Community Farm and Loudoun Hunger Relief makes a huge impact.
“It takes all of us leaning into this problem. It takes the local farmer, the community member, volunteers, churches. The reality is food is a community wide problem that affects everyone, every age, religion, color, healthy, disabled, working or not working. It affects all and it takes a community to get involved. In Loudoun, we see this happening,” said McKee.
Donations of food, money and time are always accepted at most area food pantries.
If you find yourself needing help, go to www.loudounfeeds.org to find the nearest place to pick up food.