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These resources are available to those who are hungry in our community
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Edna Jackson adds food items to bags Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2019 at the South Hall Food Pantry in Oakwood. Jackson and other members of Christ Lutheran Church prepared bags of food for the needy to pick up. - photo by Scott Rogers

Private and public resources abound in Hall County to help residents cope with food insecurity.

And as Mary Alice Swope, who runs the South Hall Community Food Pantry in Oakwood, has discovered, those services often intersect.

“There’s quite a lot of paths that people take,” she said.

Many residents learn about her center, which is behind the city’s swimming pool 

on the Oakwood First United Methodist Church campus, through the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

Hall County has dozens of such pantries. Many are based at an organization, such as church. 

Other organizations, such as the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, have a mobile pantry, while others are sponsored by a group, said Beth Oropeza, director of The United Way of Hall County’s Compass Center.

The Compass Center is a general resource center helping people find the right services and providers. People needing food also need other services, typically, and Oropeza said her agency tries to steer them in the right direction.

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Pinto beans are sorted and bagged Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, as Christ Lutheran Church members work the South Hall Food Pantry in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers

“It does seem like there are a lot of people working on the problem of food insecurity,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re all doing it in the best possible fashion.”

Kay Blackstock, executive director of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, said keeping up with demand has been taxing for her agency.

The economy’s improvement after the Great Recession didn’t “have the ripple effect to those that were down so low,” she said. 

“When the economy crashed (10 years ago), it hit hard for those barely making it already,” Blackstock said. “They never have been able to come back. We have such income inequality in our country and that gap is only getting wider.”

The number of people served or in need has jumped from 27,421 in 2018 to 38,355 in 2019, according to the food bank.

As a result, “the food shortage we are experiencing is frightening,” she added. “Our shelves that hold shelf stable goods are almost empty.”

She said that possibly contributing to the shortage is “there is a resale market for grocery salvage, so there is less after-grocery salvage to donate to food banks and feeding groups.”

A salvage grocery store sells food with slightly damaged packaging at discounted rates. An internet check shows several such stores throughout Georgia, including one in Buford.

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Christ Lutheran Church member Cathy Freeman files paperwork between visitors to the South Hall Food Pantry Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers

Competition from such stores for salvage goods has been an issue since Blackstock started with the food bank in 2008, but “we were seeing growth in retail year over year until this past fiscal year, where our inbound was down almost 11% across the board from food sources,” she said.

She’s keeping an eye on things and September could be telling.

“Long term, this food shortage could force us to pull back on the work we’re doing,” Blackstock said.

Swope said she gets food from several sources, including churches, businesses and private donors. She said she believes the need seems to be growing, at least judging by the numbers she has seen.

“So far, in 2019, we are 66% over where we were last year (in people seeking food),” she said.

She doesn’t have a ready explanation for the spike.

“With the economy the way it is, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe people have just found us.”

Food insecurity

Here’s a few resources available to help combat hunger:

Public resources include Georgia’s Food Stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federally funded resource that provides monthly benefits to low-income households to help pay for the cost of food.

Some 8,400 households were served monthly on average in Hall County in fiscal 2018, according to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

The same data does not include numbers of total households, but does say that, according to the U.S. Census in 2010, 16.1% of Hall’s population lived below the poverty level.

That percentage remained unchanged in the census’ 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.

For a family of four, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit is $692. The benefit rises or goes down based on an income formula devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Future and Nutrition Service.

The Georgia Department of Public Health operates the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program, a federally funded resource for children up to 5 years old, including foster children; pregnant women; mothers breastfeeding up to 1 year; and postpartum women up to 6 months.

Also a resource for low-income people, residents can take the WIC eligibility assessment to see if they qualify.

In most states, WIC “participants receive checks or vouchers to purchase specific foods each month that are designed to supplement their diets with specific nutrients that benefit WIC’s target population,” according to the USDA.

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Sue McCleese prepares food boxes Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2019 at the South Hall Food Pantry in Oakwood. McCleese and other members of Christ Lutheran Church prepared bags of food for the needy to pick up. - photo by Scott Rogers

Free and reduced-price lunch at school is another way income-eligible families can benefit.

Cheryl Jones, Hall County Schools’ school nutrition director and a Georgia Mountain Food Bank board member, said families need to reapply every year.

She said food pantries and the Food Bank are great resources for families. She also noted that Chicopee Woods Elementary School started a food pantry this year 

Jones said she hopes families are exploring — and taking advantage of — all available options.

“Food insecurity is here,” she said. “It does not have a face. You never know who has food insecurity in their homes.”

Swope said she doesn’t check whether food recipients are being served by other programs, so it doesn’t matter if they have qualified for other programs. She does, however, record names, to track families, with the idea that the most one can be served by her program is once per month — with groceries for three days.

“If somebody has an emergency, we certainly want to be responsive,” she said.

Otherwise, people can use other programs, and frequently do, while benefiting from the food pantry — or not, so it’s kind of an honor system.

“We let the Lord take care of it,” Swope said, laughing.

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Eugene Ferg stacks bags of pinto beans Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, at the South Hall Food Pantry in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers