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May 6, 2021

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Troubling measurement of pandemic economy: Food pantry lines

3 Photos
Volunteers at the New City Church food pantry in Peachtree City distribute dry goods, fresh vegetables and frozen meats to waiting cars outside the food pantry on December 16, 2020.
Volunteers at the New City Church food pantry in Peachtree City distribute dry goods, fresh vegetables and frozen meats to waiting cars outside the food pantry on December 16, 2020. (Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS) Photo Gallery

ATLANTA — Henry Mitchell, a single dad with a teenage son, got in a long line recently to do something he said he had never done in his 59 years of living: seek a handout of food.

He had a heartbreaking amount of company.

His hours as a customer service agent at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport have been cut 25% as the pandemic deflated travel demand. When you make $11.60 an hour after years on the job, every paid hour is precious. His $900 in savings dwindled to $25. A friend lent him $30 to help pay his phone bill.

So Mitchell, who shares a one-bedroom apartment in suburban East Point, Ga., with his son, a high school senior who works at a pizza joint, pulled his 12-year-old Dodge into line when he saw a food giveaway at a local recreation center.

“It felt kind of weird. But it was very exhilarating that somebody out there cares,” Mitchell said.

In communities throughout metro Atlanta, virtually every day of the week, new people are lining up by the hundreds to get free food. The numbers continue to stun food pantry organizers.

The stock market has set new highs. The personal finances of many Americans are at least as good as they were before the pandemic. But 10 months since the coronavirus spread locally, cars in food pantry drive-thru pick-up lanes — a measure taken to encourage social distancing — are spilling onto nearby streets and raising logistical challenges. It’s not unusual to wait more than an hour for bags and boxes of provisions. At many sites, the lines are growing, not shrinking.

From September through November alone, the Atlanta Community Food Bank distributed more than 16,000 tons of food, nearly 70% higher than the period a year ago. The organization supplies more than 700 nonprofit agencies in 29 counties.

Beefed-up donations from individuals and businesses and boosts in government programs have helped food pantries keep up with the surge in demand.

Low-wage, hourly workers have been hit particularly hard by job cuts and reduced wages during the pandemic, with the pain for them lasting longer. Many had little in the way of savings to get them through the hard times.

A previous round of federal stimulus aid helped early on. But pantry directors had braced for the area’s financial pain to worsen as special federal unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions were slated to expire in December. A new stimulus package that cleared Congress Dec. 21 offered a last-minute reprieve. Food groups and pantry recipients said they were deeply grateful.

The new benefits weren’t expected to last long, though. The just-approved $600-per-person stimulus checks and $300 weekly extra unemployment benefits are half what they were in the first COVID-19 relief package from March; efforts by President Trump and congressional Democrats to boost the new checks to $2,000 a person weren’t immediately successful and the eviction moratorium was extended a single month.

The approved additions will make a “big difference” in helping families, said Kyle Waide, the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s chief executive officer. But the economy isn’t likely to recover soon, he said, and the nonprofit is preparing for elevated levels of food insecurity after the latest round of assistance runs out.

In northern Gwinnett County, Ga., a food pantry at Hamilton Mill United Methodist Church served an average of 180 families a week last year. By December it was averaging more than 600, and there are plans to erect a new building to create more space for the operation.

“This year we have an overwhelming need for efficiency,” said pantry director Ryan Jones.

Before the pandemic, it would have been impossible for metro Atlanta workers to foresee what lay ahead, said Jones, whose day job is banker. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. You would have no way of knowing that you would be in the industry that was decimated.”

Georgia probably won’t reach pre-pandemic job levels until at least late 2022, and some industries may take far longer, according to University of Georgia economist Jeff Humphreys, who produces annual forecasts.

Among those lining up at area food pantries in the weeks before Christmas were retail and restaurant workers, custodians and former hotel staff, construction workers, forklift operators, medical assistants, child care workers and teaching assistants, a man who owned a dental products lab who had yet to see business rebound, truck drivers, airline workers and hair stylists.

Some pantries have seen more families with kids and more people who have taken in extended family members or friends who lost jobs. One pantry reported seeing more Venezuelans. Another, more Vietnamese. A group called Solidarity Sandy Springs launched during the pandemic and has so far served thousands of people, particularly Latino immigrants. It now occupies a former Publix grocery.

Various food providers have seen an increase in senior citizens. The pantry program at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., brought food to a precinct of the Gwinnett County Police Department after hearing that officers were getting fewer side gigs, such as directing traffic outside Sunday services.

Some people who visit pantries were regulars before the pandemic. Others say they are coming more often now — ripple effects from the pandemic reducing their pay or boosting expenses as they helped others or fed kids spending more time at home than at school. Tonita Shumake, a 57-year-old restaurant cashier from Newnan, Ga., is taking home about $100 less a week as business slowed. She said the last time she sought free food before the pandemic was more than a decade ago, around the Great Recession.

Others say the experience is new for them.

Beth Jeffreys, the program manager for New City Church’s food distributions in Peachtree City and Fairburn, Ga., recalled a woman in her 60s who recently sought food. The woman arrived in a nice car and was dressed in business attire. “She busted out crying: ‘I’ve never had to do this in my life.’ She said she had lost her job.”

Most people interviewed in food lines said they hadn’t been going hungry. But they said receiving the aid helped improve their chances of being able to pay for housing, utilities and other necessities.

Still, Jeffreys said in recent months she’s seen signs that some people have empty stomachs, like kids who grab at food boxes as soon as they are loaded into the car.

“It’s sad,” she said.

As at many pantries run by churches, volunteers offer to pray with people, if they want, as they wait for food.

At the East Point pantry, run by the city and other groups, volunteers loaded boxes of sweet potatoes, apples, pears, sausage, fish, chips, crackers and more. Zura Lopez drove up with her mom in the back seat. The 25-year-old said her six-day a week schedule as a hairstylist had been cut by half or more. Her father and brother were landing fewer hours on construction jobs. Her mom said she was “scared” about them falling behind on rent.

Forty-three-year-old Diana Castillo lost her job transporting non-emergency patients early in the pandemic and her husband’s work hours were cut back. He’s also driving for Uber and Lyft now, but it hasn’t made up for the lost pay. Her unemployment benefits ran out three months ago and she said her search for a new job hasn’t gone well.

“Am I going to lose my car? Lose my house? I don’t know,” she said. “What am I going to do? It’s not looking good.”

On a recent Saturday, Salvation Army Pastor Minkee Kim trotted across the parking lot at his Lawrenceville, Ga., center, trying to direct a line of vehicles longer than he anticipated for a monthly food pickup advertised in local Korean-language media outlets. Police showed up after someone complained about traffic backing up on the street and around a nearby corner.

“Way too many people are coming,” Kim said. Two hundred food boxes were prepared in advance, but he had to turn people away long before the event was scheduled to end. Kim speculated that, months into the pandemic, people have spent all their savings.

At the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, donations are up. That’s allowed the organization to dole out about 100,000 pounds of food a month, more than three times its pre-pandemic levels, executive director Tom Balog said.

At Marietta-based MUST Ministries, chief executive Dwight “Ike” Reighard said even before the end of the year the organization had assisted 151,000 people, more than four times above usual. The nonprofit has “had to become a lot more aggressive in going out and searching for food to make sure we’re keeping our pantries filled,” he said.

After 21 years at Delta Air Lines, Yasmin Espanol said she faced the likelihood of reduced hours, an uncertain job assignment and a potential furlough. So she opted for an early retirement package that gave her 21 weeks of severance. But the 51-year-old former reservations worker from Loganville said she’s had trouble finding another job to support her and her retired husband, who faces health issues.

In the meantime, she’s drawn down three-fourths of her 401(k) retirement savings. And she used up her severance from Delta to cover living expenses and pay off a car loan. She recently went to a food pantry at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, though she felt guilty for doing so.

“I don’t want to go hungry next week,” she said.

A new round of $600-per-person stimulus dollars from the government should cover one monthly mortgage payment for her and her husband. After that, she said, she needs a job, any job.

“Hopefully, everything will get better for the new year for us all.”