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Penny-pinching in Brooklyn - As food prices rise and food-stamp allocations run out, local pantries feel the crunch

Danny Wendling, a volunteer at the Greenpoint Reformed Church Food Pantry, 138 Milton Street, has seen an increase since the beginning of the year in the number of people who use the pantry.

As the value of the food stamp is decreasing this summer as prices for basic food staples have jumped, in some cases to levels double what they were a few years ago, Wendling’s seen the number of bags of food taken from the Greenpoint pantry double, from about 100 to nearly 200 a week.

“In the past year, instead of increasing food supply here, we’ve seen increased demand,” said Wendling, whose regular customers are worried about the higher cost of food.

Indeed, prices for staples such as milk, bread, meat and eggs have gone up noticeably, causing families throughout Brooklyn to search for cheaper supermarkets and visit food pantries once their food stamp allotment runs out.

The price of milk is now about $4 a gallon, 33 cents more than it was in March. Bread has increased about 25 cents as wheat approached $10 a bushel and eggs increased by about 25 percent as a dozen eggs cost between $1.99 and $2.49.

As prices rose, the number of New York City residents who have had difficulty affording food over the past year grew to 3.1 million in 2007, 55 percent higher than the two million four years ago, according to a study released by Marist College and The Food Bank of New York.

The study further found that the number of New York households with annual incomes between $25,000 and $49,999 that said they had difficulty affording food doubled from 21 percent in 2003 to 42 percent in 2007.

“If food prices are impacting all of us, it is disproportionately impacting families of lower incomes, who are paying a higher share of their income towards rent,” said Carlos Rodriguez. vice president of agency relations at the Food Bank of New York. “In the case of food stamps we know that the benefit amount is already not taking into account the high cost of living in New York and the little amount of disposable income they have.”

Local elected officials at all levels of government have sought different ways to address escalating food prices. The Farm Bill, which the U.S. Senate passed and then overrode after President George W. Bush’s veto this past month, will include a $10.3 billion increase in spending on nutritional programs including food stamps, putting the total allocations at $209 billion. By October 1, the USDA will adjust the minimum benefit for individuals from $10 to $14, though most households receive just over $100 per month in New York State.

The state eliminated resource cuts for families applying for food stamps, preventing families from being penalized for having a small amount of savings. The New York City Council has been working to add Medicaid recipients into the food stamp program if they had not been previously enrolled and targeting illegal increases in individual food staples, such as milk.

Earlier this month, Speaker Christine Quinn announced findings from a City Council investigation into local grocery stores and bodegas. Over 86 percent of retailers were charging over the maximum threshold for the price of a gallon of milk, $3.93.

“In these tough economic times, essential foods for our health and livelihood such as milk should not be a privilege for those who can afford it,” said Councilmember Letitia James, who represents Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. “Consumers will benefit by the facts this report has brought to the forefront. I encourage the state to ensure consistently affordable milk across the five boroughs, as well as urge consumers to learn about the laws that work to protect them.”

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