“It was shortly after that when John Hopkins [University] started posting COVID numbers. That’s when I knew we needed to dust off our pandemic plan and get some processes in place.” — Frank Richards
Long before the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 37 million Americans face the daily agony of being hungry. This year, that number is projected to exceed 54 million people, including 18 million children.
In rural communities—where the majority of crops that feed the world are grown— people experience hunger issues at higher rates. In the U.S., approximately 2.3 million households in rural communities have food insecurities, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
Second Harvest of South Georgia, part of Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks, has been on the front line of the hunger war since 1982. Working with 400 agency partners throughout 26 counties, Second Harvest of South Georgia is the region’s leading hunger-relief organization.
In early February, Frank Richards, CEO of Second Harvest of South Georgia, says he started monitoring COVID-19 after reports of an alarming number of deaths at a nursing home in Seattle, Washington.
“It was shortly after that when John Hopkins [University] started posting COVID numbers,” he says. “That’s when I knew we needed to dust off our pandemic plan and get some processes in place.”
On March 14, when Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19, Second Harvest of South Georgia mobilized efforts to get food resources to families in need.
“First, we sent a survey to all our agencies,” says Richards, who has worked with the food bank for 28 years. “A couple of key things we needed to know included their plans for staying open and how they would handle providing services. From their responses, we immediately knew that it wasn’t going to be business as usual.”
With nearly three decades of experience, the food bank’s staff has participated in disaster relief efforts for numerous hurricanes, tornados, and other emergencies and natural disasters.
“The difference in a pandemic and other disaster relief efforts is the wide scope of impact and time,” says Eliza McCall, chief marketing officer with Second Harvest of South Georgia. “With a hurricane, you can prepare and have an idea where it’s going to make landfall, and once it does, you go in and start to work. But with this, there is no end in sight.”
As schools started closing across the state, Second Harvest of South Georgia ramped up its children’s feeding program. A big part of the food bank’s overall mission is the Kids Café, which provides at-risk school-aged children with snacks and meals through afterschool programs and summer and holiday breaks.
“On a normal day, South Georgia has a food insecurity problem,” says McCall. “When you add COVID, it created a secondary crisis.”
In South Georgia, one in four children struggle daily with having enough food in their homes. With the abrupt ending of the school year, the issue of food insecurity reached a critical level. Students who regularly received free or reduced meals (often breakfast and lunch) no longer had that option.
From mid-March through July, the Kids Café prepared and delivered 414,687 meals and snacks throughout its service region—doubling the number of meals served last year.
Working with about a dozen school districts, McCall says, “We met them where they needed us. Each school had different needs. For some, we were a stop-gap until they could get up and running on their own, and others needed long-term help.”
While assisting with school lunch programs, Second Harvest of South Georgia also coordinated mobile food distributions to help families financially impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The need is tremendous,” says McCall. “On top of people we were helping before the pandemic, we now have people that have never asked for assistance before.”
From the start of the first mobile food distribution on March 20, through the end of July, Second Harvest of South Georgia gave away more than 11 million pounds of food—the equivalent of 9.71 million meals (based on 1.2 pounds of food per meal).
The mobile food distribution events occur three times a month—rotating between Valdosta, Thomasville, and Tifton—and each one serves 1,500 to 2,000 families on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“When we get to the site to set up, usually around 6 a.m., there are hundreds of cars wrapped around the parking lot,” says McCall. “We’ve had people tell us they waited four to five hours.”
When the mobile distributions started, families received a pantry box filled with non-perishable items such as soups, beans, rice, and canned fruits and vegetables.
McCall says the amount of food given to families has grown exponentially thanks to increased corporate donations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which includes the Farmers to Families Food Boxes.
A drive-through process, cars now stop at six to eight stations where they receive a pantry box plus milk, cheese, eggs, bread, frozen chicken and pork, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Families now leave with about 100 pounds of food. Enough to last two to three weeks, depending on the size of the family,” says McCall. “Each time it looks a little different based on what we have in the warehouses.”
Throughout the year, Second Harvest of South Georgia maintains about 5 million pounds of frozen, refrigerated, and dry products within three warehouses.
“We turn the inventory over three to four times a year,” says Richards. “This year, we expect to distribute more than 20 million pounds of food,” up from the approximately 16 million in previous years.
Even as businesses started to reopen and children return to school, the long lines of cars are a visual reminder that in South Georgia, one in five people have difficulty accessing affordable and nutritious food daily.
“On a normal day, South Georgia has a food insecurity problem. When you add COVID, it created a secondary crisis.” –Eliza McCall
Send in the Troops
Called on in a time of crisis, members of the Georgia National Guard have assisted in a variety of COVID-19 related assignments from disinfecting nursing homes to helping food banks across the state.
“The National Guard has been crucial, not only helping us build the pantry boxes, but they also assist at the weekly distribution sites,” says McCall. “We could not do this without them.”
Before each food distribution, approximately 2,000 pantry boxes have to be assembled, and more than 250,000 pounds of food are loaded and transported to the site.
“We are now using a minimum of 50 National Guard members for the big distributions,” says McCall. “During the week, we have about 10 to 15 helping build the pantry boxes.”
McCall estimates 50,000 pantry boxes have been distributed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally, Second Harvest of South Georgia operates with 35 full- and part-time staff, plus hundreds of volunteers throughout the year; however, COVID-19 restrictions halted the use of volunteers.
“We appreciate Gov. Kemp providing the National Guard and need to keep them,” says McCall. “Even trying to hire workers would cost us about $5,000 a day to replicate the labor cost.”
While Second Harvest of South Georgia relies on federal assistance, grants, and food donations from more than 90 national companies, individual and corporate monetary donations allow the food bank to continue its mission to feed South Georgia’s low-income families and children.
“For every dollar we receive, we can distribute food equivalent of 8.77 meals,” she says. “This money helps fill in the gaps so that we can keep our doors open.”