Hungry for relief |

Hungry for relief

The effects of a global economic shift are being felt in western Nevada County, as higher fuel and food costs are pushing restaurants and markets to raise their prices, and forcing more families to seek help.

Food forecasts show overall food prices will climb 4.5 to 5.5 percent this year, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Higher oil and energy prices, a growing global demand for raw materials from rapidly developing economies, a weak U.S. dollar and a larger share of the grain market being diverted to ethanol production are factors contributing to the rise in food prices, according to the National Restaurant Association.

As the slowing economy affects local businesses and forces layoffs, more people in the past six months have applied for public assistance, said Alison Lehman, director of the county’s Department of Social Services.

“These are people who recently had employment and do not have employment now,” Lehman said.

In September 2007, the department was processing 680 cases; that rose to 820 cases in March of this year.

In December, people filed 134 new applications for assistance, followed by 248 in January, 235 in February and 202 in March.

Of 231 new applicants surveyed, 19 percent came from the construction industry, 16 percent from medical workers and caregivers, 14 percent from the retail sector and 13 percent from restaurant and food service. Teachers and public safety professionals also have come forward, Lehman said.

So far this year, 925 families have come to Nevada County’s food banks, compared to 1,040 families who sought assistance for the entire year in 2007, said Toni Thompson, executive director of the nonprofit Food Bank of Nevada County.

As of May, 72 people had asked for basic staples such as milk and bread at the food bank’s thrift store, compared to 32 last year during the same period, Thompson said. The thrift store’s pantry is open on days the Food Bank outlet is closed.

“It’s a huge, huge increase. We have working people coming in on weekends,” Thompson said.

Many who come looking for basic food supplies are employed and hold more than one job. Some are elderly and live on a pension or Social Security check, Thompson said.

“The prices of food at the grocery store are so high, people who would not go to the food bank before are forced to. They just can’t make ends meet,” Thompson said.

One such person was a student trying to pay student loans who only qualified for $10 worth of food stamps per month, Thompson said.

Food costs up

Local restaurants and cafes also are feeling the pinch, with costs for paper products, flour, rice, dairy, eggs and gasoline growing while business has slowed.

“All of my costs have gone up. It’s the worst economic decline I’ve seen in 27 years,” said Susan Copeland, owner of the Flour Garden Bakery. Her business has dropped by 10 percent to 20 percent in the last year, but is now beginning to stabilize, she said.

Owners of Uptown Burrito have seen similar cost increases, for rice, beans, tortillas, tomatoes and paper goods, said Patty O’Looney, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Brian.

Nationwide, flour prices are up by 87 percent, eggs by 73 percent, fats and oils by 49 percent, cheese by 27 percent, milled rice by 25 percent and milk by 20 percent, according to National Restaurant Association.

“Then they charge gas prices on top of everything else,” O’Looney said.

Food suppliers have raised the price of gasoline to deliver food from $3 last summer to $7 this year, O’Looney said.

At Copeland’s Neal Street store, construction workers stopped coming in because work was slow.

“In turn, I’ve had to lay off staff and put off raises. I don’t think people realize the extent the price of oil has on everything,” Copeland said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail or call 477-4231.

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