Sally Diaz-Wells, who coordinates the pantry at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington, just received her weekly egg bill.
That’s $2,000, nearly 20 percent of the church’s $12,000 weekly budget, to buy food for distribution.
The wholesale price of a dozen eggs in January 2021 is $0.98, according to Charles Meng, CEO of Arlington Food Assistance. This month, AFAC is paying $4.45 per dozen. Overall, AFAC’s food prices are up 35 percent, already $160,000 above its $1.3 million budget.
Rising food prices, largely driven by inflation, are squeezing local food and meal distributors, while seeing more and more frequent arrivals of Arlington residents for free groceries. Inflation is again to blame, as customers report they don’t make enough to pay their grocery bills, local food assistance providers said Wednesday at a meeting of the Arlington Committee of 100’s Hunger Panel.
“These numbers are not numbers related to the pandemic,” Meng said. “These numbers relate to the basic needs of Arlington, especially the burden inflation has placed on our family.”
Suppliers say it hits the working poor hardest.
“This group comes to us when they need us, once or twice a month,” Meng said. “When their other benefits start to run out, they come to us more often.”
Stephanie Hopkins, food safety coordinator for the Arlington County Department of Human Services, said they often came after they had paid for other necessities, such as rent, utilities and medical bills.
“We’re finding that people are spending their available income on rent, utilities and medical bills and other bills, and if there’s enough money for food, they’re going to buy their own food,” she said. “If there isn’t enough money, that’s when they rely on the food aid network.”
Amy Maclosky, director of the APS Office of Food and Nutrition Services, said more families who would otherwise be able to pay are also relying on Arlington Public Schools for meals.
“Student meal debt has increased a lot this year, and the costs paid to students have increased,” Maclosky said. “Every student is entitled to free breakfast and lunch, whether they have money or not, but they do go into debt. Our debt is now $300,000 higher among people who don’t qualify for free or forgiveness but can’t afford to pay.”
The need for food assistance is growing as Arlington County prepares to launch a food security coalition this month tasked with implementing some two dozen hunger-response strategies.
Food insecurity affects about 7 percent of Arlington residents (16,670 people), Hopkins said. It disproportionately affects people of color: 53% and 20% of AFAC’s clients are Hispanic or Latino and black, respectively, while making up 16% and 9% of the county’s population.
Food insecurity can mean anything from “‘I’m worried my food will run out before I have enough money to buy more,'” to “I have zero food in my house,” Hopkins said. “We know that in Arlington, there are people on both ends of the spectrum, and people travel on that spectrum all the time.”
Hopkins will start her job in February 2021. Since then, she’s partnered with the Urban Institute to release a report on hunger in Arlington and formed a task force that drafted the strategy the coalition will now implement. These include adding food distribution points, increasing food deliveries and rescues, diversifying outreach efforts and collecting better data.
Hopkins predicts that demand will increase even more in March. At that point, Arlington’s roughly 5,000 households receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, will lose about $82 in benefits per household member per month.
“Typically, benefits are based on your income and expenses. During the pandemic, everyone received the maximum amount appropriate for their family size,” Hopkins said. “Scheduled to end in February [as] part of the omnibus spending bill passed in December. “
Food distributors stress that their efforts rely on financial contributions, in-kind donations from local farmers and supermarkets, and the work of enthusiastic volunteers.
“Last year, January 5th, we were in the midst of a snowstorm, so our volunteers — as brave as they were — they showed up, and they still provided food to the people who showed up with them,” Diaz ( Diaz) – Wells said. “there is a need.”
The first Food Security Coalition meeting will be held on Monday, January 23 at 1:00 pm in the Arlington Central Library. Registration is available online.
Those in need can call 703-228-1300 or consult a map of food, diaper, financial assistance and clothing distribution locations.