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Arkansas families casualties of souring economy

LITTLE ROCK – Nick and Gina Redford of Mabelvale are caught in the middle. Her salary is too high to qualify for public assistance but does not cover the bills associated with his liver disease and the rising cost of gasoline and food.

They have declared bankruptcy and face foreclosure on their home of 16 years.

Amid foreclosure, bankruptcy, $4 a-gallon gas and spiraling food prices, the Redfords have downsized to one vehicle and eliminated all unnecessary expenses. Lately, they’ve been considering seeking help from local food pantries.

“Right now we don’t have money to do anything extra … we’re caught in the middle,” Nick said.

The Redfords are not alone in their battle to stay afloat in a souring economy, according to the state Department of Human Services, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and other groups.

People across the state are going to food banks in record numbers, and the number of Arkansans receiving food stamps also has risen in the past few years, officials say.dm

“People don’t have the discretionary expenditures now because the gas is eating that up and they’ve got to cut back somewhere … and personal income isn’t going up that fast,” said economist Gregory Hamilton, director of research at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Economic Advancement.

From declining home construction and real estate sales in Northwest Arkansas to declining timber sales across the southern counties, many Arkansans are struggling along with the economy, Hamilton said.

Rhonda Sanders, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which serves more than 900 agencies across the state, said many of those seeking help from food banks are families where one or both parents may work, but at minimum wage jobs.

“Clearly in the reports we’re getting back, we’re serving more families at the local level,” Sanders said.

Many of those, said Angela Duran, president of the Southern Good Faith Fund, are people seeking assistance for the first time.

“Increasingly we’re seeing people who before wouldn’t have reached for help from a food pantry or for food stamps, but they’re doing it now because they have no other choice,” she said.

During the first three months of the year, the amount of food distributed across the Arkansas Foodbank Network serving Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties rose nearly 37 percent over the same period last year, Sanders said.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in Northwest Arkansas just in the pounds of food distributed,” she said.

The same holds true in other parts of the state. The number of people served by the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas has more than doubled from 8,721 in January to 20,484 in May, she said.

In Central and South Arkansas, the Arkansas Foodbank Network, which has offices in Little Rock, Arkadelphia and Warren, saw the number of needy rise nearly 14 percent from 103,750 in January to nearly 118,000 in April, Sanders said.

Statewide, the state food stamp program signed up nearly 28,000 new recipients last year, increasing the total number to 581,299, a 7 percent increase since 2005, according to DHS.

While more people are moving to food stamps to help meet their needs, Duran said the stamps’ purchasing power has dwindled.

“The food stamp dollar is not going as far as it used to because of the increase in various prices,” she said, noting a national study in May that found the cost of a dozen eggs was up 27 percent from a year ago, a gallon of milk increased 15 percent and a pound of chicken rose 73 percent.

The Benefit Bank of Arkansas, which in mid-February began helping the needy find and apply for public benefits they might not have known they were eligible for, has already received nearly 1,300 telephone calls for assistance, its board chairman, the Rev. Stephen Copley of North Little Rock, said.

“And that doesn’t include the people who are actually showing up at one of our sites for help,” Copley said.

The organization, which has opened offices in Hempstead, Izard, Mississippi, Montgomery, Phillips, Pulaski and Washington counties, also helps people with their utility bills and in purchasing food.

“There is really a sense of need. I anticipate it will continue to increase as the days, weeks and months go on,” Copley said.

At the Salvation Army thrift store in McGehee, Jason Martin said he has seen the number of bargain hunters rise sharply in recent months as shop owners elsewhere report a fall off in business.

“Businesses all over town are seeing a decline in business because people aren’t going out as much because of the high gas prices,” Martin said.

Dewey Sims, who runs Fishnet Missions in Jacksonville, said people are lined up outside the door when the food pantry opens in the morning.

Recently, an elderly couple sought help.

“They were very embarrassed,” Sims said. “They’d never had to do that before.”

Duran, the Good Faith Fund president, spoke of a Helena-West Helena woman who had been working full-time at a casino just across the Mississippi River but saw her hours cut in half applying for food stamps through the agency.

She said another woman who had been driving from Warren to Pine Bluff to attend a course on starting a small business had to drop out because she could no longer afford gas for the trip.

Betsy Reithemeyer, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, said often one of the parents has either job or been unable to find work because of the slowdown in construction.

“Much more consistently we’re seeing families with two adults and children coming in,” she said. “The cost of food and gas have just made it impossible for them to make ends meet.”

She said agencies in the northwest corner of the state are reporting as much as a 400 percent increase in the number of people seeking help.

As for the Redfords, they are seeking assistance from the community group Arkansas ACORN to avoid foreclosure and are able, for now, to rely on family and friends for other help.

“Right now we have been fortunate, but (food pantries and other public assistance) may be right around the corner,” Nick Redford said.

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