Troubles in the Middle East and a sour national economy are not far from the minds of Vineyarders trying to make it through this cold winter. Home heating oil and propane prices went through the roof this week.

Yesterday the retail price for home heating oil was $4.199 a gallon, up 23 cents from Tuesday when the price was $3.969.

“This is the toughest winter I’ve seen since I began here,” said Susan von Steiger, outreach coordinator for the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging. She said many of the people she has met have a need that goes beyond the home heating bill. “They have no money, they can’t pay their rent and they can’t pay their utilities,” she said.

Many who work with people in need say the number of people in trouble has not changed much from last year, but the severity of the problems has changed for the worse.

This winter 148 homes on the Vineyard are receiving fuel assistance. “By the end of the year it will probably be 270,” said Lisa A. Spencer, director of energy programs for the South Shore Community Action Council Inc. in Plymouth. Her organization administers federal fuel assistance through the state for 39 communities, including the Cape and Islands. She said she has seen an increase of four per cent over last year overall. There are 13,817 applicants receiving assistance. And the federal government is offering less money than a year ago. Take less money to cover an expanded need — and you get the picture.

On Wednesday, the Island Food Pantry made its own mark on the ledger of need, when a record number of people came in seeking free food. The pantry operates from the basement of the Methodist Stone Church in Vineyard Haven. The food pantry saw 90 people come through in a span of two hours, topping the previous record of 79 set a month ago. The pantry handed out 270 bags of groceries in a single afternoon.

Armen Hanjian, coordinator for the Island Food Pantry, said last year’s record day was 75. Mr. Hanjian said there are many parts to the hardship being faced by Islanders. “We attempt to provide for one — food,” he said.

Keeping the house warm for the young and especially the old is a top priority for the people who work at the local councils on aging. Mrs. von Steiger won’t count how many clients she has helped this winter. But the paperwork she has collected fills a drawer. “It is overwhelming to me,” she said, speaking more of the emotional side than the paperwork side.

Mrs. von Steiger has been working at the council on aging for 14 winters. She shares the work load with Rose Cogliano, assistant director of the council on aging. It is hard for applicants to qualify; the paperwork is onerous due to state and federal guidelines for fuel assistance. Miss a few key details in your paperwork and you’re out. On Tuesday, Mrs. von Steiger said she met with seven new applicants. The process takes three weeks. Fortunately, there are other avenues for obtaining emergency assistance. People who fall through the cracks of the government-backed program may be able to qualify for assistance through the Martha’s Vineyard Permanent Endowment, the Friends of Oak Bluffs and others. “We get grants from the Quilters of Martha’s Vineyard. They are a group of quilters who auction off two quilts a year,” Mrs. von Steiger said. The quilters contribute $3,000.

Mrs. von Steiger confirmed the trend of static population numbers amid deepening need. “I think people have left the Island,” she said. “I think my numbers may be about the same as a year ago, but the crisis is up.”

Ralph Packer of R.M. Packer Oil confirms that the Island is in the middle of a challenging winter, even though it isn’t that much colder than last winter. His operation of barges, tugs, marine terminal and delivery trucks has not expanded, but the price of the product he sells has shot through the roof.

Twenty-five years ago Mr. Packer said he could fill his 200,000-gallon black barge Doro 900 for $20,000, or 10 cents a gallon.

“A barge of similar size when loaded [today] costs close to $700,000,” Mr. Packer said. Amid rising environmental regulations and security requirements, Mr. Packer said he has watched small oil terminals such as his disappear along the coast. It is not the price of the fuel that hurts, he said, it is the price of doing business. “We are one of the smallest marine oil terminals in New England,” Mr. Packer said. Shelter Island is another. “The coastal tankers have all but disappeared. Railroad is no longer being used,” he said.

Mr. Packer gets most of his fuel by two barges from a fuel dock in New Bedford, the site of an old shutdown abandoned power plant, although in years prior he got it from Providence.

The last three weeks have marked a sharp change in oil prices, he said. “What with what happened in Egypt and now Libya. Everyone worries about the Suez Canal. These are very serious times,” Mr. Packer said.

For a look at the numbers historically, last fall the price of home heating oil was $3.399 a gallon. In October of 2009, the price was $2.969. When the stock market dropped in October 2008, the price went to $3.729 a gallon; three months later it dropped to $2.699.

Mr. Packer said he and his staff are fully aware of the impact the higher cost of fuel is having on the consumers who are his customers.

He said he is far more sympathetic toward his customer base than his suppliers are to him. “We have payment deadlines that have to be met,” he said.

Cliff Karako, district manager for Vineyard Propane and Oil, confirmed the hard times. “Customers are our biggest concern. There is a lot of hurt. I got plenty of it and I have a lot of past dues,” he said. “You can’t be in this business without feeling how your customers are doing. There isn’t a soul in this business who doesn’t think of their customer. You got to have a heart. This is of grave concern.”

His description of the prices? “It has gone nuts,” he said.

Fortunately, Mr. Karako said: “We are getting ready now to get out of the home heating season. Living in the Northeast, you can’t get out of heating your home.”

Meanwhile, people who need help with their heating bills are encouraged to contact their local council on aging. Assistance is not restricted to people who are elderly. Laurie Schreiber, director of senior services at the Edgartown Council on Aging, said: “In some cases we’ve gotten calls from people whom we’ve been able to help almost immediately with extra funds that come in. There are a number of sources on the Island that can offer help. Just call your local council on aging and find out what they are.”