Courtesy ACCA

Staff from the Athens Community Council on Aging prepare bags for the Athens Eats Together food distribution program. (Courtesy/Paige Powell)

Amy Lancaster of the Athens Community Council on Aging started her job as director of development and communications on March 16, 2020. That weekend, the ACCA closed its doors to the public.

Lancaster knew she was signing up for a difficult job — approximately 2,500 people aged 65 years and older fall beneath 149% of the poverty level in Athens-Clarke County, according to the 2019 U.S. Census — but she didn’t expect the additional challenge of a deadly virus that would completely interrupt operations.

“Our whole entire organization has changed, it has been a complete whirlwind of a year,” Lancaster said. “Probably one of the most rewarding years, certainly, but you know, there is no rulebook for this.”

The ACCA continues to be a vital player in supporting food insecure families and individuals, launching the Athens Eats Together initiative last fall in addition to continuing its Meals on Wheels program and other assistantship programs with COVID-safe measures in place. While Athens Eats Together was originally slated to end in March, the program received extended funding and is now estimated to last through April, Lancaster said. Information can be found on the ACCA website.

A year in numbers

According to data provided by the ACCA, Athens Eats Together provided 254,474 meals to 8,128 Athens residents through home deliveries, neighborhood distributions and drive-thru distributions between October 2020 and March 2, 2021. The program was created in a direct effort to assist people struggling with food insecurity due to the pandemic by distributing shelf-stable foods, prepared meals and fresh produce and protein.

Of those receiving food assistance through Athens Eats Together from October 2020 and March 2021, approximately 15.3% were aged 60 years and older, 39.5% were under 18 and 44.8% were between 18-59 years old.

Across the ACCA’s 27-county coverage area, 82,780 emergency relief meals were served between March 16 and June 30, 2020 according to a 2020 Annual Report.

Lancaster said she and her staff encountered plenty of people who had never had to ask for food assistance before. According to a March 2021 projection from Feeding America, national food insecurity will have risen nearly four percentage points in 2020. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was up by 4.24 million people from March to November 2020, with the highest participation in June 2020 at about 43 million people.

“A lot of them are kind of embarrassed to be in that situation that no one anticipated that they would be in,” Lancaster said. “You don't know what your neighbors are going through or family and friends … we really want to make it a very comfortable experience for everybody going through the food line.”

At the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, Media and Communications Manager Jenna Vaisvil said the food bank distributed about 13 million pounds of food across its 14-county service area in 2020 — that’s 2 million pounds above the 2019 average, Vaisvil said.

“Meeting rising demand still and will always be something that we will have to strive to deal with,” Vaisvil said. “There's a lot of need right now and we are working really hard to try and meet that need.”

Shifting gears

Both the ACCA and the Food Bank staff had to alter operations to keep people safe while still getting the job done.

The Food Bank ramped up its mobile pantry program — schedules for this program are posted in advance on Instagram and Facebook — bringing truck loads of shelf-stable goods to people in need. Staff also put together “COVID boxes,” Vaisvil said, for those who needed food quickly. These boxes are distributed at the Athens branch on Newton Bridge Road.

“I've been around a long, long time. And I've never seen anything like this in my life,” said Richard Boone, interim executive director at the Food Bank, reflecting on 2020. “We got people that have been here over 20 years … so they're very, very good at what they do, and they're very, very flexible in what it takes to rise to the occasion.”

At the ACCA, every available pair of hands is used to support operations regardless of job descriptions. Lancaster said nurses, aids and office staff had to routinely unpack food pallets and pack distribution bags, for example, in order to manage the day-to-day to-do list of this past year.

As global supply chains shifted constantly so did local food availability. Lancaster said the ACCA had to change up what was offered depending on what the organizations received in shipments, sometimes supplementing with trips to Sam’s Club or Costco. Through a partnership with Collective Harvest and the Athens Farmers Market, the ACCA was also able to provide fresh produce, dairy and meat to program recipients.

Donations and federal programs also helped with supply. Supplemental food donations from the USDA were vital in keeping the Food Bank stocked when grocery stores and individual donations dropped last spring. Vaisvil said individual distributions — which understandably dropped last summer — are just now leveling out.

As more COVID-19 vaccines become available and the local economy slowly, but surely, ramps back up, Lancaster said she’s been getting phone calls from people who no longer need food assistance.

“Many, many long hours on weekends and through the holidays were spen,t and it's been a physical labor as well, but it's a labor of love,” Lancaster said. “And we do it because we live in and work in and love Athens-Clarke County.”

While there are plenty of opportunities to help the ACCA, volunteers from the general public are still restricted at the Food Bank. Donations are still accepted at both locations and information can be found on their respective websites.