Georgia nonprofits brace for high demand as food insecurity sets in

Here are ways you can donate to support food banks and other nutrition programs, as well as places to turn if you need help.

A stream of cars lined up outside Golden Harvest Food Bank’s Augusta headquarters last week about two hours before workers started distributing chicken, eggs, milk and other food to people in need.

Golden Harvest, which serves a 25-county east Georgia region, held its first drive-through mobile market on March 18 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s one of Georgia’s nine regional food banks working with hundreds of community partners, along with government agencies and school districts during a crisis that’s expected to place an unprecedented strain on resources.

And a panicky run in recent weeks on grocery stores led people to clear shelves of food, hand-cleaning products, toilet paper and other necessities.

And people who already struggle financially face living with the worst of the fallout during the economic downturn. People in line at Golden Harvest last week needed help putting food on their family’s table even before Augusta’s mayor ordered business closings over the weekend, a move sure to deprive more Georgians of income.

“Most of the people who were there were concerned because they can’t afford to go out and stock food on their own or they are people who rely on the pantry already, they’re already living paycheck to paycheck and that’s something that helps them supplement their income,”  Golden Harvest spokeswoman Christina Alexander said.

“We think that this is going to be pretty unprecedented for us in terms of the need, which is why we’re focusing so much on making sure that our supplies in Georgia aren’t depleted,” she said.

The outbreak is especially stressful for people who work in restaurants, hotels and other hospitality jobs that rely on tips from people who crowd into their businesses. The Atlanta Community Food Bank is also deploying mobile food pantries.

The Atlanta regional food bank supplies more than 700 nonprofit feeding programs throughout 29 counties.

“We are planning for both a short-term emergency response as well as an increase in need among the most vulnerable of our community, those for whom missing a paycheck will throw off the delicate balance between meeting their needs and crisis,” spokeswoman Heather Moon said. “There will be a spike in demand following our social distancing measures.”

School systems, senior programs prepare for food insecurity

Out-of-school students and a senior population that’s most susceptible to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are getting extra attention now.

Georgia’s Meals on Wheels program needs an influx of people to volunteer with many senior centers closing indefinitely.

Organizations that serve older Georgians are taking extra precautions, ranging from requiring volunteers to wear gloves and masks, to only going inside homes to deliver food if the senior is unable to retrieve it from outside their door. 

“Our traditional population is most vulnerable on any day whether in a crisis or not,” said Eve Anthony, president of the Meals on Wheels Association of Georgia. “We’re making sure we call them to provide a safety check to make sure they’re well and see if they have any symptoms.”

Like other agencies that rely on donations, Meals on Wheels will feel squeezed the longer the pandemic lasts. 

“We’re going to face significant losses at the same time we’ve seen a drastic increase in the demand for services,” said Anthony, who is also the president and CEO of the Athens Community Council on Aging.

Students who rely on free- or reduced-price lunches are regaining access to daytime meals as local district officials adjust to serving food outside of the school setting. Throughout the state, school districts are devising new ways to feed students while the school year is put on hold. 

Thousands of meals are being served throughout metro Atlanta along bus routes and other sites, while in rural Georgia’s Cook County an area food bank and response team are passing out food in more scattered neighborhoods.

And by the middle of last week, the Macon-Bibb County school district started serving 5,000 sacked lunches for children ages 18 and under at roughly 60 locations. It’s one of the school districts that serves free breakfast and lunch to every student throughout the school year because of the high-poverty level.

“Community partners and the Middle Georgia Food Bank are also working to provide additional support and food resources beyond lunch for our students and their families – something we are so appreciative of,” district spokeswoman Stephanie Hartley said.

Yet, as school districts give out free meals, a national campaign is pushing for emergency food stamp funding for low-income families. It’s also encouraging school districts and community groups to apply for emergency grants to provide food and other resources. 

This COVID-19 pandemic requires a different playbook than the natural disasters many communities and organizations have experience responding to, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign.

“In order to reach these kids and their families, communities need an array of tools. There’s no one size fits all option and that’s why SNAP is so important,” Davis said.

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