At food/fuel summit, tips for saving, safety
As winter approaches, Steven Davis is faced with a tough choice.
“… The fact that the fuel is up year after year just bothers me [like] crazy,” said Davis, 37, a Dorchester resident and parent of two. “You got kids at home, your pay is not great, schools want money for after-school programs or else you can’t stay at work. These are the things that really scare parents — having to choose between keeping your kids warm at night or keeping them in school to learn.”
To help residents navigate the troubled economic waters, the City of Boston hosted a Food and Fuel Summit last Saturday at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, where 30 community-based organizations came together to educate Bostonians on budgeting and home-winterization techniques that may help cut bills and save money in the months ahead.
“Many private citizens have been complaining about the cost of food,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “Now you’ve got cold winter months ahead of us, and people are choosing between keeping their house warm or putting food on the table, which is just not right.”
According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Consumer Price Index for food in 2008 is estimated to increase by 5 to 6 percent, a jump up from the 4 percent increase between 2006 and 2007 that was the highest yearly spike since 1990. Families of all income levels are being affected by higher prices for home heating fuel and even basic food staples like milk (up 21 percent in the last year) and eggs (35 percent).
At the same time, average U.S. residential utility prices are estimated to increase by 5.7 percent in 2008, according to official government statistics released by the Energy Information Administration of the federal Department of Energy. The University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute reported in August that Massachusetts residents who use natural gas or oil to heat their homes could pay nearly $1 billion more this year than they did in 2007 — a 30 percent increase in total costs.
Menino and his staff began planning the Food and Fuel Summit in early August to prepare local residents in the case of record-breaking food and fuel costs before the first frost hits. Local organizations were more than willing to help.
“We are very pleased that the mayor is calling this summit and making the critical issues around food and fuel visible,” said Susan Kooperstein, director of public affairs at local antipoverty agency Action for Boston Community Development Inc (ABCD). “Our agency sees it as a great opportunity to provide information to those people who need help and to teach people financial literacy.”
ABCD provides a variety of services, including fuel assistance, for over 100,000 low-income Greater Boston residents. The agency has $104 million in fuel assistance funds this year, a significant downgrade from last year’s $137.5 million — all the more problematic with average home heating oil prices in the Bay State hovering around $4 per gallon, more than $1 a gallon higher than this time last year.
“Last year seemed bad enough,” Kooperstein said. “We gave people maybe a tank of oil and this year is much worse. We are basically going in with two-thirds the money and twice the costs.”
Other area groups are also answering the mayor’s call. The United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley last week launched a $2 million drive to provide emergency financial assistance to local residents. Its first investment: a $300,000 commitment to Menino’s Food and Fuel Campaign.
The assistance is intended “to help [bridge] gaps that individuals may have in meeting basic needs,” said Paola M. Ferrer, director of community impact at the United Way. “We are trying to address the urgency of the situation, and we recognize the crisis is not just about the low-income family but also about the middle-income family.”
Ferrer called the organization’s commitment “not just a food-fuel resource, but [also] a basic needs resource.”
“The grants are small, but may cover, for example, someone’s T-pass, which takes away the cost of transportation so that money can now be used for something else,” she said. “What we really want is for people to go to services, because if we just give money it will only patch up the problem temporarily.”
This was the summit’s primary goal: to educate attendees on how to budget their own money to achieve a more stable living situation.
Attendees had the opportunity to sign up for food stamp enrollment and utility counseling upon arriving at the summit. Appointment slots were assigned to those interested in one-on-one information sessions with representatives from National Grid, NSTAR and the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers Massachusetts’ Food Stamps Program.
Wendy Chen, a volunteer at the sign-up booth, said individuals were allotted an estimated 10 minutes to ask any questions about their personal situations and how to better prepare themselves for the upcoming winter.
Along with the fuel-aid and energy-efficiency workshops, the summit offered several demonstrations devoted to promoting a health-conscious lifestyle, a frequent casualty when the cost of nutritious foods becomes prohibitive for residents with tight budgets.
The Serving Ourselves Farm, a vocational training program of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Homeless Services that provides work for homeless men and women, sold a variety of healthy foods at the summit.
“We are providing fresh organic produce to educate people about what is available locally,” said Erica LaFountain, the farm’s assistant manager. “We are dropping our prices a bit to push healthy eating.”
Representatives from the Boston Fire Department (BFD) educated attendees about the importance of safety precautions during the winter months. Some residents who cannot afford to heat their homes turn to ovens and clothes dryers as heating mechanisms, which can spark fires or lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. To avoid such dangers, the BFD delegation stressed the importance of installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
To Dorchester resident Davis, the summit was an important step to helping residents cope with cost increases.
“I think that the mayor is doing the right thing by bringing people together,” said Davis. “He’s had some great success, and he needs to now kind of get out of his chair and scream for us even more. We want to see our leaders talk about this in the paper every single day.”