By Katie Demeria
Bitterly cold weather has gripped the valley through much of the past month, creating high heating costs that are forcing many to take advantage of local food services.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which works with 234 partner agencies throughout Virginia to provide food to individuals in need, issued a news release in which it highlighted the issue many are facing: choosing between heating their homes and eating.
"Fifty percent of those who receive food assistance through the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank reported that they choose between paying for food and paying for utilities and heating fuel," the release notes.
Heating and fueling costs cause additional financial stress to families who are already struggling to meet daily living costs.
Lt. Pradeep Ramaji, Commanding Officer for the Salvation Army of Front Royal, said he oftentimes has to help individuals who find themselves in difficult financial situation during the cold months.
"This has been a very heavy winter this year," he said. "Electric bills are going to be quite high to keep the houses warm."
The Salvation Army prepares bags of food for individuals in need every weekday between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
"We have people come every day to take the food," Ramaji said. "Even on days that it snows, when it snowed 5 inches, people came to pick up the food. It is very helpful for them, because I'm sorry to say there is a lot of need in the area."
More people take advantage of the food service in the winter, according to Ramaji, and especially during the polar vortex that hit the area earlier this month.
There are several food pantries in the area that offer services to those in need, he added, many of which are run through local churches.
"But some of these people have transportation difficulties," Ramaji pointed out. "They need places in walking distance, and then they cannot carry quite as much food, their bags cannot be too heavy."
Arlene Chappell with C-Cap, an organization that also provides food for the needy in Front Royal, said numbers this year have generally matched those she has seen in past winters.
"But we have noticed an increase in new clients this year, and that could be a result of how cold it's been," she said.
C-Cap is open between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. every weekday. Though the organization is meant to operate as a onetime emergency resource, Chappell said some continue using the services throughout the year.
Volunteers do not ask clients to present proof of income, Chappell said, but many clients reveal that they have recently lost jobs, and some are in the process of applying for food stamps.
"We have to put a certain amount of trust in them, a lot of people are just down on their luck," she said. "They don't have very many places to go."
Chappell said she sees a particular need for expanded shelter in the area, particularly for women. The cold weather makes it especially difficult for some to find a place to stay, and while they may be able to find food, finding shelter is more difficult.
Ramaji also said he would like to see shelter resources expanded. He provides motel rooms to individuals in need who contact him, he added, but there is only so much he can do.
"We as responsible citizens need to extend our hand to those who are really in crisis," he said. "Anything can happen to people, and it's all manageable if we all come together to help."
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org