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Hunger in Rockdale County
A two-part look at food insecurity at home
Making ends meet: Patricia Merrell, mother of two teenage boys, receives a donation of food from the Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection food pantry while volunteers Nancy Bunn and Johanna Cleland help load the bags of donated food. Merrell said having the food closet at the Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection to turn to “helps out tremendously.” - photo by Michelle Kim

Where to go for food help (Nov. 13, 2011)

Sign of the Times

• By this November, 63 percent of Rockdale County Public Schools students received free or reduced-price lunch.

• By the end of school year 2010 - 62 percent

• 2009 - 61 percent

• 2008 - 54 percent

• 2007 - 51 percent.

• 2006 - 46 percent


The face of the hungry doesn’t just belong to children in famines overseas.

It can also be your elderly neighbor next door or the student in your child’s class who may not know when their next good meal will be as they head into winter break. 

Hunger at home is a quieter sort of desperation, but it’s one that is growing as the poor economy and its side effects drag on.

Those working daily on the frontlines to battle this troubling issue say they are seeing a continuing wave of need washing over the county despite their best efforts. This has forced churches, schools, nonprofits, government agencies to get creative, rely even more on each other and strengthen their resolve to be a port in the storm.

In doing so, they hope they are creating a vital support network among themselves that provides a community-wide safety net long past this difficult time.

“People have been so unbelievable taking care of each other,” Ashley Roesler, Executive Director of Rockdale Emergency Relief (RER), said. “Donations are stronger than they’ve ever been.

“But what comes in goes right back out because of the need.”


The state of hunger

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a household with decreased access to food or resources to get food that disrupts their normal eating patterns.

For example, the USDA reported that last year, of the more than 48.8 million people living in food insecure households nationwide, 32.6 million were adults and 16.2 million children. Additionally, the percentage of American families facing food insecurity did not change much from 2009 to 2010.

In an annual U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted last December of 44,757 households, it found that typically, households classified as having very low food security dealt with it 7 of 12 months, for a few days each month.

Furthermore, 59 percent of food-insecure households said they received aid from one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs in the month before the survey.

Closer to home, in 2009 Georgia ranked 15th highest among states for child poverty, and 12th highest in overall poverty, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

There also was a more than 43 percent increase in Georgia residents receiving food stamps 2004 to 2009, with the average monthly benefit being $125.95 per person.

For Rockdale, the Census Bureau reports that in 2009 just more than 13 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level, as compared to nearly 17 percent in Georgia.

On the bright side, Rockdale ranks fairly high as compared to other Georgia counties for providing fresh food to its residents through avenues such as farmer markets. It also has dedicated services targeting its most vulnerable citizens facing food insecurity such as homeless children and seniors.


Feeding the flock

Pastor Leigh Jones of Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection in Conyers said it is devastating to see so many in need. With the changing economic climate, she is noticing increased calls to the church’s food pantry at month’s end when people’s money or food stamps run low versus the beginning.

Also, larger families with children are seeking help.

Jones is grateful the church can respond through the pantry.

“It’s fundamental to who we are and our calling as Christians,” she said. “There’s a scriptural mandate that calls us to feed people. Jesus fed people.”

The food pantry is part of the church’s historic identity, Jones said. 

People call on Wednesdays to sign up for a food box to pick up on Thursdays. They can get a box once a month and are screened for things such as county residency. Nowadays, once the food is distributed on Thursdays, the shelves are bare. In years past that was not the case, Jones said. So she sometimes stands in the pulpit and tells the congregation they need more food. Time after time, members faithfully respond. “The congregation’s goal always, in the big picture, is to feed His sheep, in the most literal way,” Jones said

Mary Wallace, the church’s food pantry coordinator, said a number of calls for boxes are from social workers, people who have been laid off or are waiting to get on food stamps. For those they cannot help, such as someone living outside Rockdale, the church keeps a list of places to refer them.

“We used to only distribute food probably to six to eight families a week,” Wallace said. “Now, we distribute food to 12 to 17 families a week.”

Across town, when people get a food box from Rockdale Emergency Relief’s food pantry, it frees them to use their limited funds for other needs like gas or utilities, Roesler said. 

At RER, families seeking help must explain their financial hardship and have government-issued identification, a social security card for themselves and everyone in their home and proof of a Rockdale address. Every 90 days they can get a food box, which can include canned fruits and vegetables, dry beans, starches, and even baked treats or fresh vegetables when available.

“It’s a nice surprise to put on top of a food order,” Roesler said.

She is encouraged by how well the community is banding together. For instance, an increasing number of businesses are supporting RER including Food Lion and Publix.

“If we hadn’t seen that increase we couldn’t serve the capacity we’re serving,” Roesler said, noting how many new faces she’s seeing from word-of-mouth.

Originally, RER was established in 1967 to help about 100 families monthly with supplementary food. Today, it assists about 100 families weekly, of which 70 percent have children, and often provides the entire meal.

“It speaks volumes to what people are going through,” Roesler said. “We’re in a different place than where we were as a community three or four years ago.”

The nonprofit organization does not receive resources from larger metro area food banks, although it is a United Way grantee and 211 referral resource. It survives through food drives, cash gifts for making purchases, business contributions, and donations from community-based organizations.


New partnerships

One such partnership that has deepened just in time is with the Rockdale County Master Gardeners. Last year, the group gave RER more than 1,000 pounds of produce as part of “Plant a Row for the Hungry.” The national campaign of the Garden Writers Association encourages gardeners to donate surplus produce to local food banks and soup kitchens.

In August, led by Master Gardener extension volunteers Larry and Gail Ward, the group made a major donation to RER in its efforts to exceed last year’s contribution. So far, they have harvested 1,344.5 pounds of produce, including sweet potatoes, peas and watermelon.

The 25 or so volunteers, a mix of gardening enthusiasts and retired Georgia Power employees, get especially excited during weigh ins. “We just like to feel like we’re doing something to help,” Gail said. “The need definitely is there.”

Dixie Graphics on East Park Drive offered the group a quarter of an acre on its property for the garden. On one sunny October morning the Wards were in the garden pulling okra and eggplant while talking about winter plans.

 Gail said she is considering creating a vegetable cookbook because some people do not know how to cook some of the produce they get in their RER food boxes.

“The bigger mission is you’d like to think you’re doing something good and contributing back,” Larry said.

Jule-Lynne Macie, Rockdale County Extension Coordinator, is experiencing a spike in locals seeking to grow their own food. A class she taught this year that in years past averaged about 10 students had 25 this year.

“We’ve seen a resurgence in people wanting to garden,” she said, with reasons ranging from saving money to safety concerns from recent food recalls.

“It’s not cheap though to grow your garden. But there’s nothing like a tomato fresh out the ground.”

The extension provides non-biased research to Rockdale residents, works with the 4-H Club and local farmers, and teaches about growing food, nutrition, food safety and special dietary needs. Also, it distributes a bi-monthly newsletter. One of the 4-H Club’s main community service efforts is collecting canned food year-round for RER.

The County has also started collecting nonperishable food year-round outside its administration building and partners with the United Way on an Employee Giving Campaign where workers give via paycheck deductions.

The week of Nov. 12 is National Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week. On Nov. 15, Chairman Richard Oden and Conyers Mayor Randal Mills will deliver a joint proclamation at Phoenix Pass transitional housing for homeless families, to show support.


Next Week: Hunger and Rockdale's Most Vulnerable