Demand in Up for Emergency Food Help in Atlanta
(APN) ATLANTA — As the economic crisis drags on, more people in the United States are struggling to get the food they need, turning to food pantries and food stamps for help at a greater rate than at any time in recent history.
A U.S. Conference of Mayors report released December 12, 2008, reveals demand for emergency food assistance in 25 major cities increased an average of 18 percent from October 1, 2007 to September 30, 2008.
But despite the increase in the demand, there was only a 5 percent increase in the quantity of food distributed in the survey cities.
The food situation in Georgia appears no better than anywhere else. Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB), told APN the current situation is worse than ever.
“It’s unprecedented for us,” Bolling said. “I’ve been in this work for thirty years and I’ve never seen this kind of demand.”
The ACFB is a non-profit supplier to over 800 partner agencies in 38 counties, which covers all of Metro Atlanta and North Georgia.
Using a 129,000 square foot warehouse in west Atlanta as a base, the ACFB distributes to its partners 2 million pounds of food per month and 20 million pounds per year.
But Bolling said the Food Bank is having trouble maintaining a surplus in the warehouse, sending out the food as soon as they receive it, rather than stockpiling for the winter months.
“The difference this year than in past years is that typically in November and December, we’re collecting a surplus of food and that helps us stock up our warehouse during winter months,” Bolling said. “This time, everything we got went right back out.”
Amy Hudson, public relations manager for the ACFB, told APN that overall demand is up 12 percent from July 1, 2008 through the end of the year.
“This is the most drastic time we’ve seen here,” Hudson said.
The rising cost of food forced many cities nationally to make some changes in emergency food service.
Nine cities reported they had to make changes to the type of food they purchased because of higher food costs, according to the Conference of Mayors report.
Thirteen cities reported food pantries had to turn people away, and 16 cities reported food pantries were reducing the amount of food they gave to clients.
Bolling told APN that Food Bank partners are turning people away, cutting back the amount of food they give, and conducting business on fewer days each week.
“The greatest pain is at the community level,” Bolling said. “It’s really getting down to neighbors helping neighbors.”
In southwest Atlanta, the Sullivan Center reports a dramatic increase in demand but does not have the resources to meet it.
“We put a limit on what we can do,” Sister Marie Sullivan, founder of the Sullivan Center, said. “We run out of food fast.”
Sullivan said her center usually serves between 100 and 150 people per month but has been forced to serve only 50 to 70 per month even though she says they could serve “5 or 6 times more than that” given the proper resources.
The Sullivan Center’s pantry is open only three days per week now and Sullivan said they have “run out of food a couple of times.”
“When I started this, I never worried about food,” Sullivan, who started 25 years ago, said. “We were always able to feed everybody.”
In Marietta, the Center for Family Resources (CFR) had its biggest turnout ever for its Thanksgiving program, an event the center has held for over 20 years.
Susie Ivy, Communications Manager for CFR told APN they served 1,370 families for Thanksgiving, a 26 percent increase over 2007.
“Our community really rallied around us at Thanksgiving,” Ivy said. “We were able to bring quite a number of items back to our pantry it was able to last us a little longer through the holidays.”
Ivy said as of Thanksgiving, the Center had seen an overall 22 percent increase in demand for all services, including food assistance as well as rent and utility payment assistance.
“The economy just sort of hit folks in every area that we serve folks in,” Ivy said.
As part of its Healthy Living Initiative, the Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry Foundation provides emergency nutritious food to poor children and families on a daily basis, monthly to the homeless, and a total of 17,000 meals to seniors annually.
The Foundation also provides food and supplies to over 20 organizations throughout Georgia.
Elizabeth Omilami, daughter of Civil Rights Movement leader Hosea Williams and Executive Director of the Foundation, told APN that 35 families are seeking food assistance daily, up from an average of 15 just six months ago.
“There is a crisis among the working poor in the city of Atlanta,” she said. “Those people who would normally… break even with basic food, many of them have been coming that have not presented for services before.”
Omilami said people line up outside the Foundation’s headquarters in the West End as early as 4 or 5 a.m. for service. While the Foundation has had to turn people away for rent and utility assistance due to lack of funds, Omilami said no one has been turned away for food assistance.
“We had to cut back on the size of the boxes so we can make our inventory last longer,” she said.
The Foundation is well known for its large events on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, and Easter. But higher turnout and demand over the holidays put the Jan. 19 Martin Luther King event in jeopardy.
Omilami said the Foundation experienced an increase in home food deliveries and a roughly 5 percent increase in attendance for the Thanksgiving and Christmas events at Turner Field.
“We’re total[ly] short,” Omilami said. “We served everything we had on Christmas. Normally there would be an overflow from the donations that came in [over the holidays] but we served everything.”
Omilami and others attributed the rise in demand to a combination of layoffs, cuts in working hours, the erosion of affordable housing, and a spike in energy costs.
Nineteen cities reported a rise in homelessness, with twelve cities citing the foreclosure crisis as a reason for an increase in emergency food demand, according to the Conference of Mayors report.
Cities identified affordable housing and food stamps as the top two items necessary to combat hunger.
The Food Stamp Program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), had 31 million participants as of the end of October 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up 3.9 million from the previous October.
In Georgia, 1,139,309 residents used food stamps in October, up 2.7 percent from September and 17.3 percent from the previous year, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
The economic crunch is forcing people who maybe never asked for any help in their lives to turn to local food pantries for the first time.
Most cities reported an increase in the number of people requesting food assistance for the first time, with a notable increase among the number of working families seeking such assistance, according to the Conference of Mayors report.
“We have people coming in, people we’ve probably never seen before,” Sullivan said.
“The thing we saw most is families approaching us for the first time,” Ivy said. “They lost their jobs… perhaps they did have two incomes but they didn’t have enough money to meet all their needs.”
Omilami said she has seen people break out in tears “because they’re ashamed.”
“There is no shame in being here,” she tells them. “You work and your families’ ancestors have worked to put money into a system that is available to you in a time of need. I have to address that early.”
Bolling estimated 40 percent of those the Food Bank and its partners serve have a job with many visiting a pantry for the first time. The jobs either do not pay a living wage and if they do, then they do not come with benefits, Bolling said.
“Something big is happening here in America,” Bolling said. “Even in my lifetime, we have never seen anything like this. This is comparable in some ways to the Great Depression [but] it just hasn’t hit everyone yet.”
He noted some Americans might falsely stereotype low-income people without jobs or homeless citizens of color as the only segment of the population affected by this situation.
The Conference of Mayors report found in most cities, families (59 percent) were the majority of people requesting food assistance, followed by working individuals (41 percent) and seniors (15 percent).
“We can’t easily say ‘Oh, it’s just those other folks, I hope they are OK,'” he said. “This time it’s all of us.”
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Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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