Inflation drives Georgians to food pantries

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Nonprofits seeing demand rivaling peak COVID-19 times

Metro Atlanta food banks and pantries say they’re experiencing peak demand this holiday season as inflation and the end of some pandemic-era aid programs pinch the pocketbooks of the region’s most vulnerable.

Lines for food are getting longer, stockpiles at food banks are getting smaller and, due to supply chain disruptions, loading docks are sitting idle for longer as the region’s anti-hunger groups scramble to serve the neediest.

Danah Craft, executive director of Feeding Georgia, a network of seven regional food banks, said the challenges aren’t confined to Atlanta.

“It’s sort of invisible to people who aren’t looking for it,” Craft said. Unlike the early days of COVID-19, “there aren’t big lines down River Street in Savannah or three miles of cars lined up outside Golden Harvest Food Bank in Augusta.”

About 6% of Georgia households reported in October that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. That number was even higher, more than 10%, for households with children.

Some anti-hunger groups say they’re currently seeing demand that rivals the record highs set in spring and summer 2020.

At the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which collects and distributes supplies to more than 700 nonprofit food pantries, community kitchens and childcare centers across the region, demand for food assistance has grown by more than 30% since the beginning of the year, according to CEO Kyle Waide.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Before the pandemic, ACFB moved about 6 million pounds of food a month. That average surged to about 10 million pounds during the height of COVID-19 before declining to about 7 million pounds late last year. The decreased demand, Waide said, was due in no small part to Congress’ expansion of the child tax credit, which helped the parents of roughly 2 million Georgia children pay bills and buy groceries until it expired in late 2021.

This fall, ACFB has returned to distributing 10 million pounds of food a month, according to Waide, serving some 560,000 people monthly through its network. Particularly hard hit are low-income seniors on fixed incomes and families with children, who have had to find room in their budgets to cover supplies and other back-to-school costs.

“If you’re already really close to the margin in terms of having any kind of cushion in your budget, when grocery prices go up to the degree that they have, when gas prices go up, when the cost of rent goes up, all of that just kind of pushes you on the other side of that line where now you’re in a deficit,” Waide said.

Intown Collaborative Ministries, which operates a food pantry out of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church on Ponce De Leon Avenue twice a week, has recently experienced record demand, feeding about 1,100 people a month as of mid-October, according to Director of Food Programs Laura DeGroot. She said administrators saw a noticeable spike this summer after Atlanta Public Schools ended its pandemic electronic benefit transfer program for students who typically received free or reduced-price school meals.

The following month, organizers saw a 19% increase in the number of families with children accessing their pantry, said DeGroot.

“We can see just from our numbers that people are consistently coming more often,” she said. Whereas before customers were using the pantry as a transitional resource, “now it seems that we are becoming more people’s main food source.”

Inflation, hovering around a four-decade high since last year, isn’t only hitting families’ budgets. The food banks themselves now pay more for less food and have less backup supply on their shelves.

“We are buying more food than we’ve ever done in the past and buying at a higher unit cost than we ever had in the past,” said Waide. “We’re spending north of $2 million a month right now to buy food, which long-term is just not sustainable.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Some pandemic-era food purchasing programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture ended last year, and additional USDA money funded by Congress’ COVID relief package isn’t set to hit loading docks until January at the earliest, according to Feeding Georgia’s Craft.

A grant program championed by Gov. Brian Kemp and approved by the state legislature earlier this year is helping food pantries purchase surplus fruit, vegetables and meats directly from Georgia farmers at a discount. But that funding is set to be depleted by December, and it’s unclear whether the General Assembly will replenish the money next year.

“We hope that it’ll be an ongoing thing,” said Craft.


Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

How you can help:

Most food banks and pantries rely on donations — both monetary and food-related — and the work of volunteers:

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

Intown Collaborative Ministries, https://intowncm.org/