For Tiffany Ester, and so many of us, life was fairly smooth before all of this began.
The 43-year-old held a steady job at the Atlanta airport stocking store shelves, making enough to put food on the table for her family. But when the coronavirus forced Ester into furlough, she became one of thousands of Georgians who found themselves doing what was unthinkable just a few months ago: attending a food giveaway to get through the next few days.
“When it kind of sunk in, it started to hit home. Because it is very overwhelming when you have rent, when you have children to take care of,” said Ester, a mother of three who lives in College Park.
Long lines at food distribution events have become a depressing symbol of the coronavirus as food banks and pantries across metro Atlanta report an unprecedented rise in the number of people seeking basic supplies. As the pandemic lengthens, many experts and officials worry more may be forced to go hungry, plunging the region further into a food crisis. Charities are anxious about how much longer they can meet the increased need.
“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” said Cindy Simpson, who helps run CHRIS 180, a behavioral health organization that largely focuses on mental health and housing services, but has also begun delivering food to thousands of homes in Atlanta. “Even when people can start getting out, it’s going to take families a long time to recover.”
What is ‘food insecurity?’
“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. In reality, food insecurity manifests in many different ways.
Some families could be forced to rely only on staples like rice, said Zuani Villarreal, a spokeswoman for Feeding America, a national nonprofit with a network of more than 200 food banks, including Atlanta’s. In more severe cases, it can result in a parent skipping meals and going hungry so their kids can eat.
“At the end of the day, what food insecurity means … is a family not knowing where their next meal will come from,” Villarreal said.
Ester volunteered at a recent food giveaway her union organized in Fairburn, and she also took some food home for her own family.
“I just kind of stretch everything,” Ester said. She has not had to attend any other food drives because she prioritizes buying groceries and paying her $960 rent with her limited unemployment benefits, she said. But that has forced her to fall behind on some bills, “making partial payments so I can keep everybody afloat,” said Ester, whose husband is disabled.
Now when she cooks, she tells her kids: “Don’t waste anything, because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Sheena Hill, 31, found herself in a similar situation when she lost her job in March. A mother of four, Hill was generally able to get by before the pandemic hit with some support from monthly food stamp benefits. But like many others, she and her husband, who works as a contractor, were forced further into food insecurity when the shoe store she worked at closed its doors and she suffered a sudden loss of income.
“What are we going to do?” Hill remembers thinking. “The first thing I went to was a food pantry.”
Hill has not had to skip any meals or take other drastic measures, in part because she now gets food deliveries every Tuesday and Friday from CHRIS 180. The nonprofit put flyers in parts of Atlanta inviting people who need food to call and sign up for food delivery; the group now delivers to about 1,275 homes per week.
“This has never happened to us. I don’t think anybody was sure of what to do,” said Hill, who lives on Atlanta’s Westside. “It’s crazy how life has changed so fast.”
Experts say the pandemic has exposed the fraught nature of the current economy and the level to which it impacts Georgians’ abilities to put food on the table. A Federal Reserve study released last year found that 40% of Americans would have trouble covering an unexpected $400 expense.
The coronavirus is “bringing to light the fragile nature of a household budget,” Villarreal said. “They had jobs, and now they don’t. Just like that, they need help.”
Many people who are now food insecure, like Hill, also receive monthly food stamp benefits to help pay for food. About 183,000 households applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, between March 13 and April 17, according to state data. Officials said Georgia’s more than 1 million food stamp recipients will receive additional benefits during the pandemic; those funds were rolled out at the end of March and April.
And food stamps, even coupled with unemployment benefits, are not always enough for some families to make ends meet, Villarreal said.
Coronavirus-related school closures also put a heightened burden on low-income families whose children normally get free meals at school. School districts in metro Atlanta have tried to continue feeding students and their families by offering free meals at selected pickup sites, a service Hill has used to get meals for her kids, ages 10 to 15.
But with the school year coming to an end, many of those programs are also wrapping up. Several school districts plan to launch food distribution efforts over the summer, but it is unclear whether they will be as extensive as those offered during the year.
The pandemic and loss of jobs arrived so quickly that state agencies haven’t put an exact number on how many Georgians now need immediate assistance with food, but experts and officials agree the number is still growing.
According to the USDA, before the pandemic hit more than one in 10 households in Georgia were food insecure. Feeding America estimated 1.3 million Georgians were food insecure before the pandemic, and predicts that number will grow around the state by another half a million people due to the virus.
Since early March, more than 1.8 million people have filed unemployment claims in Georgia – accounting for over 35% of the workers in the state.
Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide estimates there has been 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. The food bank distributed nearly 8 million pounds of food in April, which equates to about 6.5 million meals, Waide said. Some smaller food pantries have reported seeing their demand double over the last two months.
The Atlanta food bank is straining to serve its 700 partner food charities around the north Georgia region. While the food bank said it has generally been able to keep up with the demand, it has taken unprecedented measures to do so.
Typically, the food bank receives direct food donations from grocery stores that have excess perishable goods, accounting for about a third of the food bank’s normal inventory. But the sudden run on grocery stores in March dried up most of that supply, forcing the food bank to buy food on the wholesale market, Waide said.
“It requires that we just use every tool in our tool belt to get that food,” he said.
Waide believes the problems surrounding food and hunger will persist long after the state reopens its economy, possibly stretching into next year. In recent weeks, he said, the food bank has seen “unbelievable” financial support from donors that has allowed them to purchase truckloads of extra food. But he said that may not be possible in the long term if the food bank does not receive continued help through donations.
“This is going to be a marathon,” Waide said.
The financial anxiety is being felt at food pantries around the country. Feeding America estimated it would need an additional $1.4 billion over the next six months to sustain operations and meet the increased demand for food, Villarreal said.
At a recent drive-thru distribution event outside the Toco Hills Community Alliance, dozens of cars of all makes and models snaked through a large church parking lot. In this middle-class neighborhood, the cars were driven by people ranging in age, race and language spoken. Several mothers walked up to the center with their children to receive boxes filled with a wide range of goods including staples like bread, fruits and veggies. Some who waited for food said they were homeless.
The Toco Hills nonprofit has seen about double the number of people in need of basic food supplies, handing out almost 500 boxes of goods in one recent week, Executive Director Lisa Heilig said. She brushed off any notion that residents who do not truly need food have taken advantage of all the recent giveaway events.
“I’ve seen this. There were people in tears who were so happy they got food, because they weren’t sure where they were going to get food from,” Heilig said, surrounded by tables topped with fruit and towers of granola bars stored in boxes.
Down the hall, 40-year-old Zada Danziger helped organize boxes alongside other volunteers and a few Georgia National Guard members who put together supplies. Danziger, who worked at a restaurant and as a substitute teacher before the virus upended both jobs, now partially relies on food from the pantry as well.
“A large percentage of what is at my home to eat is from this place,” the Chamblee resident said. “It’s absolutely a necessity.”
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