Laguna Food Pantry steps up for the hungry amid inflation, gas price hikes

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Volunteer Mary Ann Sprague loads donated groceries into a family’s van visiting the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Andrew Owens was recently forced to cut back on his household expenses with inflation at a 40-year high and soaring gas prices.

A father of three sons, Owens was among the shoppers who visited the Laguna Food Pantry drive-thru for free groceries on Wednesday. Wearing a chef’s black uniform, Owens was on his way to work as a culinary director of a Newport Beach restaurant.

“We’re living paycheck to paycheck even though I have a full-time job,” Owens said. “Even for people with a decent job, it’s difficult to survive in this economy.”

His fiancée, an author with a children’s book series, decided to move back to Virginia to live with her parents and avoid rising rent. He’s had to adjust to their long-distance relationship.

Laguna Food Pantry and food banks nationwide saw some relief as people returned to work after pandemic shutdowns but are struggling to meet the latest surge in demand as federal programs offer up less food, grocery store donations shrink, and cash gifts don’t purchase as much.

On Tuesday, pantry volunteers provided free groceries to 160 families, including 10 new families, in two and a half hours. Multiple cars that drive in pick up food for 11 to 13 family members living in one home.

“People are struggling,” Pantry Executive Director Anne Belyea said. “It’s not getting better out there but we’re committed for the long haul.”

In addition to groceries donated by local supermarkets, the Pantry buys in-demand items like milk and eggs. About 800 dozen egg cartons are given away on a weekly basis.

The latest hunger surge is far from the pandemic’s worst. The Laguna Food Pantry saw a record 342 families seeking free groceries the week of Thanksgiving 2020 as Orange County suffered a setback in attempts to control the spread of COVID-19.

Ingrid Pelico drove with her three kids from Anaheim to pick up free groceries on Wednesday. The stay-at-home mom is pregnant with her fourth child. Her husband works for a landscaping company.

Inflation, rising rent, and fluctuating gas prices have all impacted the family.

“It’s been difficult for us because prices have gone up,” said Pelico through her daughter Silvana translating. “We’re grateful for everything. Everything they give out is very good.”

Families’ vehicles wait in line up to receive free groceries from Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Elinor Organista of Santa Ana visited the Pantry with her adult daughter to pick up groceries, especially milk and eggs, on Wednesday. Organista hasn’t worked in two and a half years after leaving her nurse’s assistant job on disability. She gets some benefits from her former employer but doesn’t cover her expenses.

“It’s so expensive. A $100 bill is nothing now,” she said.

Groceries provided by the Pantry on a weekly basis are critical to feeding her family, Organista said.

James Yoo, 74, and Wan Yoo, 72, of Aliso Viejo started visiting the Food Pantry a year ago after seeing an advertisement for free groceries.

“Every penny counts at my age. Everything is going up but we’re retired people on a limited budget so I have to reduce my spending. It’s out of our hands,” said James Yoo, a retired finance professional.

Anyone who might be on the fence about contributing to the Food Pantry in this uncertain economy is invited to tour with Belyea and meet the hard-working team of volunteers.

“Our community has stepped up but our hands are still out,” Belyea said.

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