Inflation, economic challenges create ‘perfect storm’ at Georgia’s food pantries

Employees and volunteers at Open Hand Atlanta work in the prep area of the kitchen on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Each day, Open Hand Atlanta prepares and packages thousands of healthy meals for people in need. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Employees and volunteers at Open Hand Atlanta work in the prep area of the kitchen on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Each day, Open Hand Atlanta prepares and packages thousands of healthy meals for people in need. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Lines are longer and costs are rising for nonprofits that offer free meals

Inflation is straining the pocketbooks of food banks and nonprofits that deliver free meals to some of Georgia’s most vulnerable residents, at a time when demand for these services is on the rise.

Heads of food banks and non-profits in and around Atlanta say they are feeling the pain of the increasing cost of groceries, fuel prices and other goods. The people they serve are feeling that pain too, and are turning to these places for help.

“Lines are getting longer at food pantries. Demand for food assistance is growing. And that is certainly putting a strain on the emergency food system,” said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Hunger is still very much a problem in the greater Atlanta region. The demand is nowhere near as high as it was during the height of the pandemic, but leaders of nonprofits say the food lines now are far exceeding pre-pandemic levels. They say the situation is further complicated by workforce shortages, problems with the supply chain and the expiration of federal assistance programs that helped fill the gaps during the pandemic.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Wednesday that prices spiked by 9% in June when compared to the same time last year. Inflation is at a 40-year high, and driving up the daily costs that can have the biggest impact on low-income Americans.

Matt Pieper, the executive director of the food nonprofit Open Hand Atlanta, and Board president of Georgia Meals on Wheels State Association said that all the providers he knows are struggling with record inflation. His organization, Open Hand Atlanta, is paying 18 percent more in food costs this year compared to last year. The number of calls he gets in a day from people who are seeking food assistance has nearly tripled.

“There isn’t a program that I’ve talked with throughout the state that isn’t seeing an increase in demand for services, as inflation has skyrocketed and as the cost of fuel has skyrocketed,” said Pieper, whose organization produces about 5,500 meals a day.

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Matt Pieper, executive director at Open Hand poses for a portrait at headquarters in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Matt Pieper, executive director at Open Hand poses for a portrait at headquarters in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Matt Pieper, executive director at Open Hand poses for a portrait at headquarters in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

A record number of senior residents, who were isolated during the pandemic, are now turning to senior centers for socialization and to get a hot meal. The at-home food delivery services for seniors is also under strain, Pieper said, as seniors see their grocery bills increase but their fixed income stays the same.

“We’re feeding more seniors than we ever have before, because more seniors are accessing services because they’re running out of money,” he said. “COVID really helped to expose the vulnerability of our safety net in our state and in our country. And then you put on top of that inflation, inflation in fuel and inflation in rent prices, and it creates a crisis.

MUST Ministries, a volunteer organization that helps struggling families, is encountering its own struggles while working to provide an estimated 550,000 meals to kids throughout the summer school break.

Dr. Ike Reighard, president and CEO of MUST Ministries, said that in his 27 years of feeding children in their summer program, this year has been the most complicated. The need is far greater, and MUST is struggling to buy in bulk due to disruptions in the supply chain. This means that volunteers must take more trips to local stores in order to compile weekly food kits for children.

“This year you still have people that are dealing with the economic ramifications from COVID. And then you’ve got inflation, and then you’ve got supply chain issues,” he said. “When all of those things flow together, it just makes for the perfect storm for being able to meet the needs of people.”

Reighard said MUST Ministries must find a way to feed children this summer despite the increased costs and demand. The organization says it is more than $30,000 short of the $300,000 predicted need for purchasing food.

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Employees and volunteers at Open Hand Atlanta prep meals on Thursday. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Employees and volunteers at Open Hand Atlanta prep meals on Thursday. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Employees and volunteers at Open Hand Atlanta prep meals on Thursday. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Waide, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said that this past June, the food bank and its network of nonprofit community partners distributed 8.4 million pounds of food. That’s slightly less than demand at the height of the pandemic, but it’s far greater than what they distributed pre-pandemic, which was about 6 million pounds every month.

Overall, the Atlanta Community Food Bank is buying more food and at higher prices. In all, he estimated they are spending about 40 percent more on food than at the end of last year. Total expenses are up about 20 percent.

Demand for food assistance had started to drop off last year, but Waide said the need crept back up in March. He attributes that uptick not just to increased grocery prices and spiking gas prices, but also to the expiration of the expanded child tax credit that lapsed in December. Studies have shown that these types of monthly payments, which ranged from $250 to $300, go a long way in reducing child hunger.

Eve Anthony, chief executive officer of the Athens Community Council on Aging, said they are feeding 100 more seniors now than prior to the pandemic, up to about 320 people total. Compounding the demand, Anthony said she’s struggling to recruit new volunteers to drop off food because of rising gas prices. Still, she said she’s in a better position than some other organizations.

“We’re very fortunate in and that we haven’t lost any volunteers because of gas prices. But I know that we’re the outlier for that,” she said.

On top of that, Anthony said her organization has an 84-person waitlist, a backlog they won’t be able to resolve until they have more funding.

That’s not the situation everywhere in Georgia. Waide, the president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, expressed optimism that his organization will meet demand, at least for now.

“Even though things are complicated and challenging right now, we feel very confident that we’re going to be able to meet the needs that we’re faced with,” he said. “However, how sustainable that is long term depends upon us continuing to get the kind of support we need from Washington around some of these federal nutrition programs.”


Here is a list of pantries and food banks, and the websites for donations:

The Atlanta Community Food Bank, www.acfb.org.

MUST Ministries, www.mustministries.org/summer-lunch.

Open Hand Atlanta, openhandatlanta.org.

Athens Community Council on Aging, www.accaging.org/support/