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    Monday, October 03, 2022

    Families adjust to rising costs of groceries, utilities and rent

    Last winter, Angela Gaeta kept her thermostat around 65 degrees and found that the highest her gas and electric bill went was about $220. Now, she's keeping her thermostat "at a chilly 60 degrees" and has already seen her bill hit $250. She works as an IT manager from home, in the two-bedroom townhouse she shares with her teenaged daughter in Norwich.

    "At my desk, I have a space heater that I use, and I bundle up. I've got the USB gloves that I plug in that are heated, and I've got my big blanket hoodie, and sometimes I'll be at my desk in a hat," Gaeta said, but she noted her daughter's room isn't that cold.

    People here and across the country are making adjustments to deal with the rising costs of heat, groceries, gas, rent and more, whether that means adjusting food shopping habits, putting off major purchases or reaching out to a social services agency for help.

    Norwich resident Michael Richardson said he's started buying more things at Walmart instead of Stop & Shop, buying household items in bulk, and not going out to eat as much. Richardson, who works in HVAC, lives with just his wife but said he feels for people with larger families.

    "We just try to maintain our lifestyle, but give and take a little from each one, in order for us to live comfortably," he said.

    Leaving NSA Supermarkets in New London on Wednesday, Veronica Guerri of Waterford said prices are "ridiculous," so she's stopped buying brand names and doesn't go out as much. She said she recently started going to this supermarket because it's cheaper.

    Similarly, Tiffany Adanti, who lives in Oakdale and works in Groton, had been going to Stop & Shop and Big Y but has started going to ALDI. She has two kids, including a teenaged son, "so the snack bill is high." Adanti said with costs going up, she also switched cellphone carriers and car insurance.

    Bill Cornelius of Niantic, who is semi-retired and lives with his wife, said he's noticed the price of cat food go up — and they have eight cats. Cornelius, who has a background in electrical contracting, also is concerned about the lack of housing being built for young families and the rising costs associated with new construction, such as lumber and copper wire.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the Consumer Price Index, a key measure of inflation, for all items rose 7% in December compared to the same month a year before, the largest 12-month increase since June 1982. Food at home went up by 6.3%, with meats, poultry, fish and eggs rising 12.5% — more than double any other grocery category.

    Used cars and trucks were up 37.3%, and energy commodities were up by 48.9% — 41% for fuel oil and 49.5% for gasoline. Gasoline prices plummeted earlier in the coronavirus pandemic but prices last month were still higher than any December in the past decade.

    Comparatively, wages and benefits increased 4% in 2021, the highest since 2001.

    Consumer spending dropped 0.6% in December, after rising each of the previous three months.

    Social service agencies see increased need

    While some people are making lifestyle adjustments in response to rising prices, many low-wage workers already were struggling with food insecurity and paying their bills.

    Regina Brady, director of the Women, Infants and Children program at Thames Valley Council for Community Action, said the rise in prices has impacted WIC clients, and most clients use multiple services within the agency.

    "Not only can they not buy food," she said, but "Eversource went up an exorbitant amount as well, and they don't know where to go, so WIC is the 'door' they come in because they know they need something. I find that WIC staff are providing a lot more referrals to other resources both internally and externally."

    She is seeing an influx of clients calling to get on WIC, which serves pregnant women, breastfeeding women up to the infant's first birthday, and children up to the child's fifth birthday. Through WIC, clients can get nutritious food that they may not be able to afford otherwise.

    Brady noted that Eversource has a program where customers can get discounts if they receive certain benefits, and she's seen a "significant uptick" in calls and emails from clients looking to confirm their WIC eligibility so they can get their Eversource bill reduced.

    TVCCA runs an energy assistance program, and agency Executive Director Deb Monahan said the price of oil in New London County through the program rose from $2.05 on Jan. 26 of last year to $3.14 on that day this year.

    She noted when gas prices increase, "it's going to hit any commodity that has to be transported. It's going to hit food."

    Late Wednesday afternoon, the line for the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut's mobile food pantry at C.B. Jennings International Elementary Magnet School stretched through the parking lot, all the way down Mercer Street and onto Hempstead Street.

    "We're definitely seeing an increase in the amount of food, the need for food, particularly at our mobile food pantries," said Dina Sears-Graves, president and CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut. She said the United Way is intentional about including eggs and proteins and meats — groceries that have seen the largest price increases — so families get what they need.

    But she said when there's inflation, donations go down because people aren't buying extra at the grocery store. United Way has to budget differently, and sourcing is still an issue amid empty shelves.

    Kristen Chapman, who is social services coordinator and executive assistant to the mayor in Ledyard, said that donations to the Ledyard Food Pantry as well as visits from clients have remained steady. There was an overflowing donation bin Thursday at Town Hall.

    "We have a very giving community here; we're very fortunate," she said.

    The pantry recently started a relationship with Village Market to purchase meat and fresh produce, and those costs have gone up. The pantry also has agreements with Connecticut Foodshare and the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, and Chapman said costs from both have stayed steady.

    At the Jonnycake Center of Westerly, which operates a food pantry, social services program manager Maggie Pinto said the theme she's hearing from clients "is the cost of living is so high." She added that for people who have been living in a home for five years, it's hard to deal with a rent increase of $200 or $300 a month.

    She recalled that one client said, "I think it's about making responsible choices about necessities. Having kids, their needs come before mine. Do they need new shoes, a new winter coat? Can I make what I have last through the winter...?" Another said they're going out to eat less often and spending less on coffee runs.

    "We're seeing a higher rate of new clients coming in through our doors," Pinto said. She's hearing that clients are struggling to afford produce, meat and dairy, and they're getting creative due to lack of availability of other items, with supply chain issues.

    But she said rising costs aren't putting too much of a strain on the budget of the Jonnycake Center, as it's getting funding through the Rhode Island Food Bank and Rhode Island Foundation.

    Pinto thinks there's a stigma that food pantries or even SNAP resources provide lower quality food, "and that's just not the case."

    "We really take pride in offering fresh vegetables, produce, meats, and getting that stuff in the hands of people who need it," she said.

    The Jonnycake Center also offers financial assistance with rent, utilities and medical bills.

    e.moser@theday.com

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