Gwinnett County cafeteria workers bring freshly prepared food out to waiting school buses in front of Berkmar High School so they can be delivered to students around the district in April. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray

Partnership to create jobs, 500K meals for struggling families

Across metro Atlanta, large commercial kitchens shuttered by the coronavirus have fired back up to feed thousands of families and provide employment for workers who were out of a job.

With the school year over, families with children at home for the summer are at a greater risk for food insecurity and hunger. And while metro Atlanta school districts are offering summer feeding programs, some are scaled back versions of what was offered during the school year.

To help fill those gaps and reach more families, two major players leading Atlanta food relief efforts are partnering to provide an additional half-million meals this summer. The Atlanta Community Food Bank and Second Helpings Atlanta recently launched the “Atlanta Community Kitchen Project,” which uses once-closed corporate kitchens to cook meals for families in need.

Kitchens at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena, for example, closed when the pandemic hit in mid-March and canceled sporting events.

Ned Cone volunteers with Second Helpings Atlanta picking up food at Sprouts and Trader Joe's on June 2. The new partnership will use Second Helpings' fleet of vehicles and volunteers. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman

“It’s really a collaborative effort … to help bring unemployed hospitality workers back, and at the same time address the food insecurity issue that’s so big right now,” said Andrea Jaron, the executive director of Second Helpings, a “food rescue” organization that takes surplus food from grocery stores and restaurants and delivers them to agencies fighting hunger.

After the meals are cooked in the corporate kitchens, Second Helpings volunteers and staff deliver them to partner organizations that prioritize feeding children and families, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, Horizons Atlanta and the At-Promise Youth and Community Center.

Before the pandemic hit, about 16% of children in Georgia were food insecure, meaning they did not always have access to enough nutritious food, according to Feeding America, which runs a network of food banks across the country. The organization estimated one in four children could now face food insecurity because of the coronavirus pandemic.

OPINION: Let’s reduce hunger here this summer and beyond

Recent studies from the U.S. Census Bureau found that households with children are more likely to face food scarcity during the pandemic. Many summer camps and day cares are not operating as they normally would, and hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs. 

“Summer’s always a hard time for family with kids who would normally rely on school meals as big part of their food budget,” said Kyle Waide, the CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “At this time, during the pandemic crisis, I think that’s even more of a challenge.”

Gwinnett County buses line up in front of Berkmar High School in Lilburn on Tuesday morning April 7, while waiting to deliver lunches to students in the district. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray

When the pandemic hit, school districts were major sources of food for families.

Atlanta Public Schools’ food distribution program, however, was scaled back for the summer. From mid-March until the end of May, when schools would have been open, APS distributed about 160,000 meals weekly at school sites and along bus routes. Throughout June, partner organizations will hand out 20,000 meals a week to APS students. The summer food program is set to wrap up at the end of the month.

During the school year, Gwinnett County provided more than 2.2 million meals at 67 school locations. The district and county expanded its normal summer food program this year, allowing families to pick up grab-and-go meals between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at 31 locations.

The summer food distribution programs for students in Cobb and DeKalb counties are about the same as they were during the school year and will run through July.

“There’s a huge gap in need and this will help meet some of that need,” Waide said of the new program.

The Atlanta Community Kitchen Project is funded by private donors including the Rotary Club of Atlanta, which has committed $200,000. More than 170,000 meals have already been delivered to families across metro Atlanta. The project hopes to provide a total of 500,000 meals by mid-August.

Dozens of organizations throughout metro Atlanta provide free meals to low-income families during the summer through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program. A full list and map of the available locations is available online.

— Staff reporters Vanessa McCray, Kristal Dixon and Marlon A. Walker contributed to this report.

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