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Food banks face higher demand at holiday time

Area pantries looking for help with donations to meet need

POSTED: November 23, 2008 12:30 a.m.
BRANDEE A. THOMAS /The Times

The Banks-Jackson Emergency Food Bank at 111 Atlanta Ave. in Commerce is open from 9:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Food assistance is available to needy families only through referrals.

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As most area food banks can attest, need knows no season.

The Atlanta Food Bank, which provides food to many local organizations, has watched its supplies dwindle this season as the demand for food continues to rise.

As many as 800 charitable agencies throughout the state obtain their food supplies from the Atlanta organization, and the high demand is hard to keep up with, said Kay Blackstock, project coordinator for the fledgling Georgia Mountain Food Bank.

Blackstock said her new organization will be able to relieve some of the pressure the Atlanta Food Bank is experiencing.

"They're having a hard time," Blackstock said. "Our timing couldn't be better."

Blackstock said the Georgia Mountain Food Bank was able to help agencies from many surrounding counties in North Georgia that are in need of supplies.

"These agencies are seeing their orders double and triple," Blackstock said. "There's so many more people in need right now."

The Banks-Jackson Emergency Food Bank is among organizations reporting a high number of families seeking help.

Though the food bank is only open for four hours, three days a week, the facility helped more than 100 families put food on their tables in October, according to the food bank manager.

"Last month, we gave food to 117 families," Christa Shumake said. "We help people through referrals only, either through churches or (the Department of Family and Children Services). When they come in, we give them enough food for about a week."

Although things are running smoothly at the moment, like most other people, the Banks-Jackson food bank has faced some pretty lean times in the current tough economy.

"A couple of months ago, we got down to empty shelves," Shumake said. "But with the help of the community, we have been able to stock our shelves again. I'm really proud of (our community) because they have responded so well."

Community donations are especially important during the holiday season when more families come to the food bank looking for assistance, Shumake says.

"So far this month, we've helped 56 families, but I know that number will go up the closer we get to Thanksgiving and then next month around Christmas," she said. "I've been at the food bank for 14 year and it's always the same every year. We always see more people around the holidays. I think it's because (parents) who are struggling every other day of the year, like to do something special for their families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone wants to have a good dinner everyday, but especially on holidays."

Blackstock said the Georgia Mountain Food Bank has been able to place orders from food drives and corporate gifts.

She said Hormel just donated 30,000 pounds of canned chili and beef stew. "That one gift went to nine different agencies," Blackstock said.

Because the Atlanta Food Bank's shelves are emptying so quickly, many groups, like the Chattahoochee Baptist Association's Good Samaritan Food Ministry, have asked local civic organizations, churches and schools to fill the void by holding their own food drives.

Mike Walston, director of Good Samaritan, said the demand for food this year is "out of sight."
"We're doing about 33.5 percent more this year than at this time last year," Walston said.

But the community has answered his call and the efforts of a number of organizations, such as Red Oak Sanitation and Memorial Park Funeral Homes have helped out.

"We're OK right now, we really are," Walston said. "There's a great response right now."

And though Good Samaritan has received a good amount of donations from the community, he predicts the need will continue to rise. He has asked the member churches of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association to continue holding food drives on a rotating basis throughout the year.

Blackstock said there is an elevated awareness of hunger in the community during the holidays, but it is important for people to remember to donate canned goods year round.

"The need doesn't go away after Dec. 31," Blackstock said.

Walston said he believes the elevated need for food banks is directly related to the poor economy.
"I guess folks are out of jobs," he said. "More young men are coming in now. We're helping them supplement."

Billy Hendrix, director of public relations and community affairs with Memorial Park Funeral Homes and Cemeteries, said he decided to hold a food drive after talking to Walston about the need in the community.

"I found out there was a critical need," Hendrix said. "There is so very little on the shelves. It touched me."

Memorial Park will be collecting canned and boxed goods until Dec. 15. Its goal is to collect 1,500 pounds.

Hall County Fire Services is working with Memorial Park in the effort and is accepting food donations at all stations.

Hendrix said he feels people have responded well because when experiencing a loss, they may be more inclined to give and try to comfort others.

"When the holidays come around in our profession, it's a time of reflection," Hendrix said. "Maybe that helps with the grieving process. It's just amazed me."

Hall Area Transit's Red Rabbit Fixed Route service will also be holding a canned food drive Monday through Wednesday. Boxes will be placed on each bus for canned food items; riders who donate a canned food item may ride free and receive transfers as usual. All the food collected will be donated to the Salvation Army.

Gary Cole, lead pastor of McEver Road United Methodist Church, said his church is having a hard time helping all the people who are in need this year.

"There's plenty of demand," Cole said.

The church offers a food pantry as well as financial help for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

"We have what we call a benevolence team," Cole said, which allocates donations to families who seek help from the church for rent, bills or gas.

Cole said he has seen the number of people who need this kind of assistance rise, especially from families within the church who have lost their jobs.

"There are more people looking for help," Cole said. "More people inside our church family are losing their businesses."

Cole said though his church is not a big food bank, it does try to keep a basic food pantry stocked, which is becoming harder to do as the need increases. But Cole said he tries to remind his congregation throughout the year that the need for food is always there.



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