DeKalb County residents wait for distribution of frozen chicken and fresh produce at James Hallford Stadium in Clarkston on Friday. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

DeKalb’s 18-ton food giveaway events swamped as hundreds of cars line up

The line for a drive-thru food giveaway event in DeKalb County stretched for more than half a mile and through several parking lots Friday, a blunt of reminder of the widespread need for food during the coronavirus pandemic.

The county gave out a total of 18 tons of food at sites in Clarkston and the Panthersville area in south DeKalb. Six hundreds boxes of fruit and vegetables and 600 10-pound bags of frozen chicken were handed out at each location.

At the James R. Hallford Stadium in Clarkston, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and other top county officials personally loaded up some of the cars. Thurmond said 500 cars had lined up an hour and a half before the event began.

“I’m able to feed my family thanks to DeKalb County,” said Sheryl Heard, 63, who waited in line for food Friday at the Clarkston giveaway. “The food means we’ll be able to eat a lot of days, like a whole week, with no problem.”

DeKalb County Fire Rescue recruits help distribute food at the giveaway. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

In addition to the cars, which stretched down Memorial College Avenue and N. Indian Creek Drive, dozens of people walked up to the stadium and stood in line to receive food.

Thurmond said it was “heartbreaking” to see the sheer amount of need at the giveaway. He became emotional thinking about the cars of families who had to be turned away after the boxes of food ran out.

“I don’t know what I’m going to say to people who are outside the queue,” he said. “It’s just so much pain.”

Before the pandemic, more than 130,000 DeKalb County residents — about 18% of the population — were “food insecure,” according to the latest estimates from Feeding America, a national nonprofit with a network of more than 200 food banks. Food insecurity is a technical term used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that refers to a household that does not always have adequate access to healthy food.

READ MORE: As pandemic lingers, fears grow that more families forced to go hungry

Over 14% of DeKalb residents live in poverty, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The national poverty threshold for a family of two adults and two children is about $26,000.

Since the coronavirus hit, the Atlanta Community Food Bank said it has seen a 30 to 40% rise in the number of people who are now getting food from food drives and other emergency sources, compared to mid-March.

Much of that demand is related to the recent spike in unemployment. Dante Smith, 41, who attended the Clarkston giveaway, normally travels for work installing tile. He hasn’t been able to do that since the pandemic began. Smith said he wasn’t surprised by the long lines of cars.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (left) works alongside DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond to distribute the 600 boxes of fresh produce. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

“I live around here. This community needs it,” said Smith, 41. “I know the people around here appreciate it. I know I do.”

DeKalb officials said the food distribution sites were in parts of the county that have seen high rates of COVID-19 and have more economically disadvantaged residents.

The county spent $40,000 to purchase the food from South Georgia farmers. The agriculture industry has been affected by the pandemic as schools and restaurants closed abruptly in March, depriving some farmers of many of their usual customers. The county worked with Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s office to support the farmers while helping DeKalb families.

The boxes of produces included onions, peaches, blueberries, bell peppers, cabbage and more. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution

“We have to bridge the gap … between urban Atlanta and rural, South Georgia,” Thurmond said.

Groups at the forefront of food relief efforts are worried about sustaining the increased need in the long term. Thurmond said the county will spend around $3 million of the $125 million the county has received in federal coronavirus aid to address food insecurity. He suggested similar distribution events could be held monthly.

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