Fighting food insecurities in Atlanta

Whether it’s a lone effort or a big organization, Atlantans are rallying to put healthy food in bellies.

Every day a steady stream of customers enters Poor Hendrix to enjoy a meal of chili-rubbed mushroom skewers, salmon tartare or honey-tarragon grilled chicken salad. Right next to the East Lake restaurant, another steady stream of people come and go and it also involves food. Some drop food off; others pick it up.

Next to Poor Hendrix is a refrigerator operated by Free99Fridge, a local grassroots organization where a community fridge is placed next to a local business and people are free to drop off food or pick it up. It’s as simple as that. Started by Latisha Springer, there are currently four “solidarity” refrigerators in place, all named in honor of a Black person whose life was taken.

“It seemed like a great idea and something the neighborhood needed,” says Jamie Russell, Poor Hendrix’s owner and refrigerator host. “People are constantly putting food in and constantly taking food out. There definitely is a big need. I was surprised by how big that need actually is. Sometimes we have people waiting for food to be put in. As fast as you can place the food, it’s gone.”

Food insecurity continues to be a pressing issue, locally as well as nationally. Whether it is a neighbor putting fresh produce into a Free99Fridge, or a church, government entity, nonprofits or corporation donating money, food and time, there are a lot of people trying to feed people. And, sometimes it’s just one person like Sebastian Tate, a warehouse worker and part-time mechanic who, in his spare time, prepares meals, accepts donations from friends and then drives around town looking for people in need. “I’ve had hardships of my own. I try to give them sandwiches, granola bars and then some toiletries. A little goes a long way and there are people all around who need it. It’s just my personal mission.”

Tate says he spends maybe $200 every couple of weeks if he has money to spare. “I wake up and realize I have stuff in my kitchen I don’t want to eat and I’m grateful for that. I want to share it.”

While there are individuals like Tate with a hands-on approach, a large percentage of the food assistance comes through the Atlanta Community Food Bank that then distributes it to more than 700 nonprofit partners — food pantries, community kitchens, childcare and senior centers, and shelters. The food bank purchases food (about $20 million last year) as well as receives donations from corporations, food distributors, manufacturers and grocery store retailers.

The bank’s food distribution grew by 60% at the height of the pandemic, from 78 million to 116 million pounds of food, according to Kyle Waide, president and CEO. In addition, the population of people with food insecurities grew as much as 40 percent, with many of those people experiencing not having enough food for the first time in their lives.

“During the height of the pandemic, we were distributing about 10 million pounds of food a month; that’s between $15 to $20 million worth of food. It’s a lot and I don’t think people fully appreciate the volume of food we’re distributing,” he says.

Waide says he has been “really inspired by how so many people have sought to get involved in helping neighbors during this pandemic. There are a lot of creative ideas and that’s great,” he says. But, at the same time, “We are a very well-established emergency food network that coordinates with 700 organizations. Folks who think about going to a grocery store and trying to donate food somewhere should remember that we can provide four meals for every dollar you donate to us. We can get a lot more food to people a lot more efficiently [than others].”

Kim Phillips, executive director of the North Gwinnett Co-Op, has seen food insecurity decrease slightly since the child care tax credits kicked it, but she says the problem is still severe. “Last year we distributed 545,000 pounds of food but we’re also seeing an uptick in people getting sick and it’s affecting home deliveries. We’re starting a mobile pantry next month. It’s important to remember that food stamps won’t pay for toilet paper or laundry detergent. People ask for those items as much as food.”

The co-op works with 25 churches and businesses in specific zip codes in Gwinnett County. “With the holidays coming, food banks get generous donations but people are still hungry in June and July. Summers are always challenging, especially since many children don’t have access to meals at school.”

Other food distributors have a slightly different model but are just as committed to ending food insecurity. Second Helpings, for instance, diverts more than 80,000 pounds of fresh surplus foods that would be aimed for landfills each week and also delivers thousands of prepared meals weekly through its new Fun Plate Project.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Second Helpings rescued 1.9 million pounds of food in 2020; in 2021 (to date) it’s 2.7 million. “From our perspective, we’re just as busy if not busier,” says. “There are a lot of people in need and our partner agencies consistently are asking for more food,” says Andrea Jaron, executive director. “Hunger is an issue in this country. The government is infusing a lot of money to support families. Statistically, Black and Hispanic families are still significantly impacted more by food security and smarter people than I are delving into the situation.”

Second Helpings deals with food whose sell-by or use-by dates are still valid; Freefoodcommune has no such issues. “We don’t have standards. Bring us your stale bread. Unless it’s crawling with maggots, we will use it. And, if it is, we’ll give it to the farmers in our networks for their chickens or to compost it. Zero waste,” says Pam Noud (AKA Pam the Freegan), who founded Freefoodcommune almost eight years ago.

She started the commune out of a general disgust of food waste. “We have four times as much food as is needed. It’s going into people’s fat bodies, landfills and ruining our environment. Overproduction of food is extremely complex but how many breakfast cereals does a country need? We rescue the food that’s being discarded.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Not a traditional food bank, people give a token donation of $35, $25 or $15 and in return they get about $300 worth of food. The main difference is that those who give more get to come earlier, and therefore have a better food selection.

Interestingly, not all those who show up are food insecure. “We have people who are struggling to make ends meet. They have a choice to feed their kids or pay the electricity bill. Then we also have people with six-figure incomes who are conscious about the environment’s carbon footprint and recycling. They come because they don’t want the food to go into landfills.”

All stressed that there are countless ways to volunteer time or money that will help elevate hunger insecurity in the metro area. Tate wrote about his activities on Facebook and neighbors responded with moral support and donations. “If you really want to do something to help, just do it. Get up and go do it.”


HOW TO HELP

Free99Fridge: free99fridge.com

Second Helpings: secondhelpingsatlanta.org

Freefoodcommune: facebook.com/freefoodcommune

Atlanta Community Food Bank: acfb.org