Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Athens Groups Step Up to Feed the Hungry During the Pandemic

Vicki Long, an Athens Community Council on Aging employee, prepares a meal bag for distribution. Credit: Amy Lancaster

When COVID-19 struck in March, the economy stumbled, and the local unemployment rate shot up to more than 11%. Many residents found themselves unable to pay for food and other necessities. In response, Athens-Clarke County and the Athens Community Council on Aging created a robust partnership with several other nonprofits to meet these needs with prepared food, grocery deliveries and other services. These organizations came together to form Athens Eats Together, a collaboration that is responding to the crisis with a well-organized food distribution system designed to feed up to 10,000 people.

Faced with a quickly mounting crisis in those early days of the pandemic, the ACC government worked with the ACCA and its wide network of volunteers to help manage the distribution of food through the Meals on Wheels program, a free food-delivery service previously available solely to seniors. Thanks to funding from the federal CARES Act, the ACCA has eliminated the age requirement and is offering to help anyone in need with packaged meals and grocery bags, as well as vouchers to purchase fresh produce at the Athens Farmers Market. ACCA Executive Director Eve Anthony says that the number of clients served by Meals on Wheels has jumped from 200 pre-COVID to more than 2,000 six months later. Anthony expects the number will continue to climb as the pandemic wears on. 

Pre-COVID, Meals on Wheels was organized out of the ACCA office in the old depot off College Avenue, but the dramatic increase in demand required new space, leading Anthony to explore other avenues. Enter Daniel Epting of the catering company Epting Events, who early in the crisis wrote letters to the county and several organizations to volunteer help. Working with ACCA and the county, Epting offered the use of the Cotton Press, the company’s event facility now on hiatus due to the crisis, as a point of distribution to handle the huge increase in volume.  Epting’s staff is now preparing food for Meals on Wheels clients as well.

Using a combination of federal and county funds, Athens-Clarke County Manager Blaine Williams says Athens Eats Together can serve up to 10,000 people through the end of January.

Stephen Bailey, the county’s assistant director of public works, is leading the county’s efforts. He says Athens Eats Together works on three fronts: direct food assistance; help signing up for the SNAP (food stamps) and WIC (nutrition and health guidance for women, infants and children) programs; and food-waste diversion, which identifies sources of fresh food that otherwise would be wasted. Bailey has synced up the many moving parts of Athens Eats Together using an online platform called Give Pulse—which coordinates volunteers, supplies and customers.  

Other organizations also play a significant role in delivering food to those who need it.

Tim Johnson, executive director of Family Connection-Communities in Schools, says that its network of 16 “Neighborhood Leaders,” who through a lucky break were starting work the first week of March, are busy introducing their communities to the new benefits. The Neighborhood Leaders program was the first component implemented in ACC’s $5 million “Prosperity Package,” with the establishment of 16 Prosperity Zones corresponding to the areas served by local elementary schools. Shawanda Johnson, Winterville’s neighborhood leader, says she delivers food to about 150 residents and helps them complete forms for unemployment insurance, food stamps and the school district’s application for food delivery. 

The Athens Area Food Bank continues to accept donations of food at its 640 Barber St. location. The organization’s director, Kim Ramos, says that all canned, fresh or frozen food is welcome. She is concerned that the annual Can-a-Thon donation drive, normally operated in area schools, has been canceled this year, which may lead to shortages in 2021. The drive is essential to the organization’s mission, bringing in 15 tons of food each year, or roughly half of the food necessary to serve the 50 families that use the food bank each week. Ramos says she is seeing many Athenians contributing their federal stimulus checks to the organization.  

The Clarke County School District is continuing to implement the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded National School Lunch program, which normally provides free breakfast and lunch to children at their schools. Since schools are currently closed, students can now receive deliveries by school bus at their usual bus stops, or parents can pick up meals curbside 10:30–noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Clarke Middle, Hilsman Middle or Whitehead Road Elementary. As of the end of August, the district had delivered more than 832,000 meals.