More in Georgia short of food


The pantry in her family’s extended-stay motel room is practically bare, and lately Sonya Hale has invented some strange ways to stretch what’s left: like tuna fish and ketchup.

Like a well oiled NASCAR pit crew (from left) Ren Reynolds, Rob English and Bobby Barton quickly fill a food order from the pantry at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry Greg Ellis Center.
Terry Carter holds her head as she searches for food at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry Greg Ellis Center in Norcross.

As an entree, “I don’t recommend it,” said Hale, 38, who waited Wednesday afternoon at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry to pick up a free order of groceries. The food comes just in time. “We’re almost out of noodles.”

Many other Georgians are also struggling to put dinner on the table.  In the years since recession struck, 16.9 percent of Georgia families have been “food insecure,” according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture .

Food insecurity is defined as a household having difficulty providing enough food for all its members at some point during the year. A food-insecure family is likely to reduce the quality or variety of meals to the point that members are at risk for health or developmental problems.

Georgia’s rate was well above the national average of 14.5 percent for 2010, and only four states — Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Alabama– had higher three-year averages. As has been a trend across the country, the percentage of food-insecure families in Georgia has risen sharply in the past few years. The percentage of Georgians with a doubtful food supply has increased by more than half since the late ’90s.

The national average remained unchanged from 2009, which was the worst year since the survey began in 1995.

The study found that 6.4 percent of Georgia families were “very food insecure,” with some members at times going hungry.

The news comes at a time when many helping agencies are pressed for resources. Donations to some food banks have dropped, and Angel Food Ministries, a low-cost food supplier, announced Wednesday it will suspend services during September.

Agriculture department official Kevin Concannon said the fact that food insecurity did not rise nationally last year, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high, is a positive sign and a testament to the effectiveness of federal programs such as food stamps and school lunches.

“They are intended to meet the critical needs of families struggling to put food on the table until they get back on their feet,” Concannon said. “They are intended to expand and contract in response to economic needs. When the economy improves, participation tends to decline.”

Subsidized school breakfasts and lunches play a role in keeping Hale’s children, Kyleigh, 7, and Cody, 11, well fed, she said. But supper is a problem. A dedicated “extreme-coupon” shopper, she used to store up huge supplies of foods on sale back home in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Then she and her husband, Brian, moved the family from Iowa to Georgia for a job that didn’t materialize. They brought along their discounted foods, including a dozen bottles of barbecue sauce, seven boxes of Pop-Tarts and multiple cans of tuna fish. Now nothing’s left but the condiments.

Like many visitors to the church-based charity, the Hales have not sought assistance before.

“Overall, monthly requests probably stayed about the same, but there’s an increase in the number of new people coming in,” said Shirley Cabe, director of Norcross Cooperative Ministry. The newcomers are people who are out of a job, or their pay has been cut, or they’re in a new job working for $8 an hour instead of $25, she said.

That would include Blanca Baires, 29, a native of ElSalvador who had to leave her $9-an-hour warehouse job because she doesn’t drive. She works in a different warehouse now, at $7 an hour, to feed herself, her two children and her mother.

Historically, many of those seeking assistance in Gwinnett County were of Hispanic origin. The number of Hispanic customers dropped in the last six months, said J.T. Morris, a 10-year volunteer. Morris suggested that many Hispanic clients may have moved back to Mexico, Central or South America or another state.

As clients were processed through the center Wednesday, a printer in the store-room where Morris and three other volunteers waited began to buzz, then spit out an order. The group sprang into action, and within 30 seconds had bagged groceries for a family of four. (Clients receive a standard order of groceries that includes pasta, sauce, cans of fruit and vegetables, canned meat, peanut butter, jelly, breakfast cereal, fresh bread and toiletries. Families with infants can also request disposable diapers and baby food.)

On Wednesday about 60 families visited the low brick building off Buford Highway, seeking rent assistance, clothes, food and even toys. Volunteers took information on each client, developing a database to keep track of the number of times any single client visited the charity. Clients are limited to once-a-month food assistance.

Cabe said her group serves from 950 to 1,000 clients a month.

Clinton Collins, 34, who also waited for assistance Wednesday, said his car was stolen, he lost his license as a commercial driver and that in a few days he and his family will have to leave a relative’s house and fend for themselves. “It’s rough out here, believe me,” he said.