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High fuel costs force hard choices

Agency Relations Coordinator Tony Bellotti helps Alice and Don Richmond load food into their car at Second Harvest Food Bank on Tuesday morning. 
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Agency Relations Coordinator Tony Bellotti helps Alice and Don Richmond load food into their car at Second Harvest Food Bank on Tuesday morning. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

Time and again, the 1986 Plymouth Reliant has shuttled Alice and Don Richmond from home to doctors’ visits. But lately the strain of fuel prices has stretched their already tight budget.

“We put $5 worth of gas in this morning and it barely even moved the needle,” said Alice Richmond, who relies on the car to take her husband, a Vietnam-era veteran with Alzheimer’s, to doctors’ appointments.

For families on the tipping point, high fuel costs are the latest pressure that may upset the balance, according to Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, which released its 19th annual client survey Tuesday.

“People can only juggle limited resources for so long before something gives,” said Jason Clark, the center’s executive director. “Things like rising fuel costs that affect all of us will have a more dramatic impact on families living on poverty-level or low fixed incomes.”

Even as Washington state’s economy has shown signs of gradual improvement in recent years, the number of people relying on Spokane food banks has remained stubbornly high. Each month, Second Harvest’s network of 21 food banks in Spokane serve 16,000 people, nearly half of whom are children, Clark said. The survey found that 80 percent of its clients survive on an income below the federal poverty level – $16,090 for a family of three.

Clark said his center is anticipating an increase in those numbers this winter, driven by the rising cost of heating bills. Clients also cited growing expenses for housing, child care, and prescription drug costs, while stating that access to food stamps has been tightened, according to the survey.

Gasoline prices have forced some to choose between transportation and food. This month, Second Harvest is launching a “Fuel Fund Drive,” an attempt to raise $50,000 before Thanksgiving to pay for the nonprofit’s increased fuel expenses.

Christie Carlson, a 32-year-old mother of three, said she and her husband no longer drive their children the mile each way to and from school. Carlson, whose husband attends college during the day and works the graveyard shift as a computer support specialist, said she has reluctantly turned to the food banks to help her family.

“I feel like there are others out there who maybe need it more,” said Carlson, who also helps dispense food to others. But she said she needs the supplies to feed her children.

Roberta Lindner, 59, said she came to rely on the food bank since fleeing a domestic violence situation several years ago.

“You really have to swallow when you go in,” Lindner said.

Through the food bank, Lindner also takes a course on food preparation offered through the Washington State University Spokane County Extension office. The classes teach students to prepare meals using foods supplied by Second Harvest.

In the past year, about 9,000 people participated in educational food programs offered in conjunction with the university, according to Nancy Sanders, WSU’s food coordinator.

Alice Richmond was one. She credits the program with helping her manage her food budget. Yet with half of her monthly income going to her rent, Richmond and her husband struggle to stay afloat. This month, they have been unable to pay rent.

“There are a lot of months where something has to give or we don’t make it,” she said.

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