Opinion: Signs of recovery are encouraging, yet challenges still remain

Jazmine Banks (R) and Tiera Hanley (C) organize pallets of prepared meals during the 9/11 National Day of Service at the Georgia World Congress Center Saturday, September 11, 2021. Each pallet will hold 15840 meals each.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Jazmine Banks (R) and Tiera Hanley (C) organize pallets of prepared meals during the 9/11 National Day of Service at the Georgia World Congress Center Saturday, September 11, 2021. Each pallet will hold 15840 meals each. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

We have a lot to celebrate this Thanksgiving. The worst of the pandemic might be behind us. Schools and restaurants are open. The economy is growing. The Bulldogs are amazing. The Braves won the World Series.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank has additional reasons to be grateful. We have worked with our network of 600 community partners to provide 150 million meals to families in need since the pandemic began.

We are grateful for the generosity of our community, which has supported us with the food, funding and volunteers we needed to respond to the crisis.

We are grateful that demand for food assistance has declined by more than 20% over the past several months, as more families get back on their feet.

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Kyle Waide

Credit: contributed

Kyle Waide

Credit: contributed

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Kyle Waide

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

This has been an extraordinary two years, and we have so much to celebrate.

But this year feels different. Celebrating the year’s highlights feels out of sync with this moment.

We are in a hard time.

So many of us have lost loved ones to COVID. Their loss continues to feel raw and unreal.

Labor shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions make a strong economy feel stagnant.

We are confronted daily with news stories and images of distrust and division.

More of us are facing mental health challenges. We’re tired.

And more of us are questioning our obligation to each other and our community. What do we owe each other? Am I getting my fair share?

This is a hard time. And yet, we can be grateful for this moment. Let me explain.

The pandemic and the ongoing reckoning with race and social justice have laid bare longstanding inequities in our communities and systems.

Inequities in healthcare access led to higher rates of COVID hospitalizations and deaths for low-income families and families of color.

Reliance on virtual learning revealed the disparities in digital access for communities of color and rural communities, exacerbating gaps in education access and student achievement.

Home values and stock prices soared during the pandemic, widening the racial wealth gap in our community, making it even harder for less-wealthy families to access homeownership or begin investing in the market.

The Food Bank experienced a massive increase in demand that hit low-income workers much harder, especially in communities of color. Black families were more than twice as likely to be food-insecure than white families before the pandemic. The pandemic widened that disparity.

We’ve known about these inequities long before COVID. But as a community, we have kept them at arm’s length.

The pandemic changed all that. No longer can we downplay the systemic racism and economic inequality that strain our social fabric and limit opportunity for too many of our neighbors. It’s in our face, every day.

I am grateful for the opportunity that lies before us. The opportunity to systemically address these challenges in our public policies, in how we run our businesses and organizations and in our relationships.

I am grateful for the countless individuals, of all backgrounds, who work courageously, inside workplaces or as activists in the community, to challenge leaders like me to examine how I contribute to and benefit from these inequities.

I am grateful for the public leaders who are developing local, state and federal policies to combat these inequities. Consider the Child Tax Credit, which reduced demand for assistance by 20% virtually overnight.

I am grateful for companies large and small that are changing how they do business, how they support lower-income employees and how they use their platforms to advance change.

These efforts are not enough to counteract longstanding inequities. But they are exciting. They will result in fewer families needing help from the Food Bank, allowing us to provide more help for those who still struggle with hunger. I hope these changes are the beginning of something much larger.

We don’t all share the same vision for our future. In this hard time, division and anger are everywhere. The path forward will not get easier any time soon. But as a colleague of mine reminds me when I want to pull back from these challenges, “We can do hard things.”

Ten Thanksgivings from now, we might think back to this moment, when social unrest and a public health and economic crisis forced us to re-examine our values. When we considered new commitments to extend opportunity to more of our neighbors. When we confronted an existential question for our community: What do we owe our neighbors?

My prayer this Thanksgiving is that we answer that question with both a long list of actions, and with a simple understanding of our role in community. What do we owe each other? All that we can give.

Kyle Waide is president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.