Sweetwater Mission volunteers Laura Lindsey and Thomas Montgomery bag groceries for a patron in Austell, Georgia, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. More than 80,000 people in Cobb County are food-insecure, and with Thanksgiving approaching, community food pantries such as Sweetwater Mission are serving on average 80 people a day. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cobb food pantries prepare for holiday rush

The Atlanta Community Food Bank says more than 80,000 people in Cobb County live in food-insecure households, and the local food pantries that help fill the void expect the need for their services to grow as the holidays arrive.

Sweetwater Mission, which serves Cobb, Douglas and Paulding counties, is already seeing an uptick in demand for services from families, said Brian Hamilton, executive director of the organization.

“The biggest thing for us is to make sure we have enough staff to handle the demand,” he said, noting he has a staff of four full-time workers, five part-time employees and about 12 volunteers.

Hamilton said Sweetwater Mission distributed nearly 1 million pounds of food to more than 30,000 families in 2018. Between 50 and 125 families come through the food pantry each day. The lower number will hover around 100 as Thanksgiving Day draws closer. Sweetwater Mission also provides clothing and homelessness prevention and education services to families in its three-county service area.

About 60 percent of families seeking help have children, Hamilton said. Sweetwater’s clientele also includes a number of seniors and families who identify as Latino or Hispanic. Anyone seeking services does not have to show formal identification — just a piece of mail that proves they reside in Cobb, Paulding or Douglas counties.

A volunteer helps stock products at Sweetwater Mission in Austell, Georgia, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. More than 80,000 people in Cobb County are food-insecure, and with Thanksgiving approaching, community food pantries such as Sweetwater Mission are serving on average 80 people a day. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The steady stream of demand from families who need help getting enough food isn’t a surprise to Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association, a network of seven regional food banks. About 1 in 7 people and 1 in five children in Georgia are food insecure, the organization said.

Craft said the persistent food insecurity can be attributed to more families relying on part-time, lower paying jobs that replaced higher-paying positions following the Great Recession. Those working families go through times when they have trouble making ends meet because they may not log enough hours at work.

“Those are the kinds of emergencies that create crises in families that are doing all the right things, but they still need a little bit of help,” Craft said.


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Family Life Restoration Center’s food pantry program is likewise seeing an increase in demand, executive director Luther Washington said. Its pantry, which has been open for 14 years, services mostly senior citizens. However, Washington said they also help some college students who may be short on funds.

Residents can stop by the pantry for dry or canned goods and their choice of meats. A family one to two people can get about a 35-pound box of food while larger families can receive about a 50-pound box.

Washington said the organization is already putting more chairs out in its lobby to accommodate the anticipated spike in clients needing help from now through December.

“It’s just going to get more as the holiday sets in,” he said.

Sweetwater Mission volunteers Tori Sokol and Chuck Stowers sort clothing in Austell, Georgia, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. More than 80,000 people in Cobb County are food-insecure, and with Thanksgiving approaching, community food pantries such as Sweetwater Mission are serving on average 80 people a day. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Community Food Bank, which works with 600 nonprofit partners to distribute food to people in 29 metro Atlanta and north Georgia counties, defines food insecurity as the lack of “consistent, dependable access” to enough food for people to lead active, healthy lives. Out of Cobb County’s 81,880 food-insecure individuals, 29,680 are children, according to the most recent numbers from the organization.


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This is where MUST Ministries steps in with its network of food pantries inside local schools. The Cobb charity recently opened its 35th neighborhood food pantry at Hollydale Elementary School in Marietta. MUST has agreements with Cobb, Marietta City and Cherokee County school systems to house pantries within schools that have higher populations of low-income students. MUST also has a pantry that services Kennesaw State University students.

The pantries are stocked like small grocery stores with food and toiletry items. Volunteers shop for items needed at food pantries and drop off those donations to MUST Ministries, which delivers the items to the schools. School staff identify children and families who are in need, and they are offered the chance to “shop” at the pantry once a month, said Kaye Cagle, MUST’s vice president of marketing.

Sweetwater Mission volunteer Thomas Montgomery helps a patron with her groceries at Sweetwater Mission headquarters in Austell, Georgia, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. More than 80,000 people in Cobb County are food-insecure, and with Thanksgiving approaching, community food pantries such as Sweetwater Mission are serving on average 80 people a day. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Yvonne Byars, MUST’s senior director of volunteer services, said the program serves about 375 families per month and donates about 270,000 pounds of food each year. In 2018-19, MUST’s pantries served more than 4,000 people. Some teachers and counselors will also and can deliver food to families who don’t have reliable transportation.

“That’s the buy-in of everyone involved,” Byars added.


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Hollydale Elementary School Principal Jennifer Ridgway said the food pantry operated there by MUST Ministries serves about 15 families who are referred for help by teachers because “they hear more than we do.” About 85 percent of the school’s 585 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the principal said.

Ridgway, who said the pantry is “definitely a blessing,” said it’s the school’s mission to prepare children to become productive members of society. She also said that the Hollydale school community works as a family to “engage, equip and to empower children.”

“We can’t do that without them having food at home,” she said. “That’s a vital part of their development.”


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