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  • Charlotte Luke

How Local Nonprofits are Fighting Food Insecurity During the Pandemic

A volunteer for Second Helpings Atlanta transports rescued food to partner agencies. Photo posted on May 1, 2020 on Facebook (@SecondHelpingsATL).

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on food waste and food insecurity in the United States are severe, as the Guardian and the New York Times have reported. In Georgia, which has one of the country’s highest rates of food insecurity, food recovery organizations and food banks have been forced to adapt quickly to unprecedented challenges like the disruption of the food supply chain and the sharp increase in food insecurity caused by unemployment, school closures, and other factors.

For example, the nonprofit Second Helpings Atlanta has recently implemented new measures to fulfill its twofold mission of providing meals to those in need and reducing the environmental impacts of food waste.

Typically, volunteers transport donations of excess food from businesses like Costco, Whole Foods, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Cox Communications to partner agencies that distribute meals directly to clients. But the coronavirus pandemic introduced “competing moral obligations” of feeding people while protecting at-risk populations, says Stephen Opler, president of Second Helpings Atlanta. Furthermore, many businesses could no longer donate food once their doors closed, and even several partner agencies have reduced their hours or shut down entirely.

In response to these challenges, Second Helpings shifted from its primary reliance on volunteers, about 40% of whom are over the age of 60, to truck drivers whose routes include multiple pickups and dropoffs to maximize efficiency and reduce people’s exposure to the virus. Businesses in the Atlanta community have helped the organization make this transition.

According to Opler, Goldbergs Deli donated several drivers to Second Helpings Atlanta, Mercedes-Benz loaned it three sprinter vans through the end of June, and kitchens at Truist Park and Mercedes-Benz have agreed to remain open so that Second Helpings can distribute thousands of meals per week to its partner agencies, which include homeless shelters, churches, food pantries, and other nonprofits.

Food banks have also adjusted to the pandemic. After closing its facilities to all but a select group of volunteers, the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, which serves 14 counties, now receives online orders from partner agencies and makes the orders available for pickup. The food bank also holds 30 mobile pantries per month across the region, which operate like restaurant drive-throughs: volunteers load boxes of food into individuals’ cars, minimizing human contact.

Fortunately, the food bank’s supply network has been mostly consistent. According to Tracey Massey, the community outreach manager at the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to send daily shipments of food, and after a period of shortages “when everyone panicked and stockpiled food,” grocery stores now have excess food to donate.

The biggest challenge the food bank faces is “getting (food) out safely and trying to get the people to come for the help,” says Massey, since many individuals currently experiencing food insecurity “have never had to use this service before.” A negative effect of social distancing, then, is the absence of personal connection. As Massey says, “I can’t go up and put my arm around somebody and say, ‘Hey, you’re not the first one. We’re here to help you.’”

Second Helpings Atlanta and the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia have seen outpourings of support from their communities, but Opler, twarns against the “false sense of security” among people who are “insulated because of the lockdowns.”

Both he and Massey encourage people to donate money to organizations fighting food waste and food insecurity, and Opler also encourages people to “be creative. Where do you have influence? Who do you know?” To help those most negatively affected by the pandemic, “connecting people to resources,” says Opler, is paramount.