Feeding Southeastern US families in need through community connections
As COVID-19 continues to affect the globe, millions of people in the United States face a basic needs issue: how to feed themselves and their families.
About 10.5 percent, or around 13.8 million, of US households were food insecure at some point in 2020, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of reliable access to affordable and nutritious food. Before the pandemic, food insecurity for Americans was at its lowest rate in almost 20 years, according to Feeding America. The pandemic upended much of that progress, displacing workers from jobs, children from schools, and families from financial security, all of which led to increased food insecurity.
With these widespread economic and health crises, local aid organizations have become the backbone of support for many families in need.
Distributing food rescue in the time of COVID-19
In the southeastern part of the United States, Microsoft is collaborating with four organizations that are taking unique approaches to distributing food to those experiencing food insecurity.
Umi Feeds, a food-rescue nonprofit that serves the hungry and homeless in the Atlanta metro area, collects unused food from groceries, restaurants, events, farmers, caterers, and more, that have a surplus of items that would generally end up in the trash at the end of the day.
Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR) distributes rescued and purchased food to the hungry in Loudoun County, Virginia. Pre-COVID, LHR served around 250 families a week. At the height of COVID in 2020, they were serving around 1,000 families.
Grants and donations can mean everything to nonprofits and programs working to battle food insecurity. A third non-profit, Backpack Buddies Foundation of Loudoun (BBFL), provides financial backing to programs that offer weekend meals for Loudoun County students in need.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank works with more than 700 nonprofit partners to provide meals for 1 million food insecure people in 29 counties in the state.
“About 60 percent of the food we provide families is supermarket rescue,” said LHR’s Deputy Director of Supporter Engagement, Trish McNeal. “At the very beginning of COVID… we could not get donations from supermarkets at the volume that we needed for the amount of people we were serving.”
Both food and financial support from local organizations and donors like Microsoft kept LHR’s resources running during the brunt of the pandemic.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank has distributed more than 67 million meals to people pushed into food insecurity by COVID-19, thanks to their partnerships with local organizations and the help of supporting grants.
“We are thankful for the support of Microsoft and their passion of alleviating food insecurity in the East Point area,” said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “With their donation, we can provide up to 128,000 meals which creates an immediate and lasting impact on the lives of our neighbors in need.”
A focus on quality
Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR) offers 12 broad food categories, supplementing donations by purchasing fresh foods like produce, milk, eggs, and proteins. “We want people to be able to get what they need, get what they want, and get what their family will eat,” said McNeal.
Umi Feeds works with produce, canned, and prepared foods. The majority of their meals are prepared foods that they then distribute to those experiencing food insecurity and homelessness, as well as seniors and those who are transitioning between homes or treatment facilities.
“Our focus is special,” said Umi Feeds founder and executive director, Erica Clahar. “We focus on getting nutritious and affordable meals to folks who don’t have access to healthy food. And we can change their health around.”
Health and nutrition are important to Umi Foods’ unique focus. Meals are built with the community in mind and are created to offer something for every dietary need.
“We don’t serve garbage food. We don’t give anyone anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Clahar said.
For Backpack Buddies Foundation of Loudoun (BBFL), extending food support is also educational.
“When you hear that Loudoun County is one of the richest counties in the country, and then you tell someone that one in four kids in this county are food insecure to the point where they don’t have enough to eat or they don’t have anything to eat on the weekends, that’s mindboggling,” said BBFL founder Daniel Hampton.
In the beginning, Hampton hoped to give out a couple thousand dollars a year. Since the beginning of COVID, they have now given out more than a quarter-million dollars. The Microsoft grant provided support for BBFL’s efforts in the community.
Building better access to health and nutrition in communities
To reach their community, Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR) focuses on both service from their Leesburg pantry, and on mobile markets and delivery that gets food to the right communities. COVID increased the need for mobile service, and LHR needed to add vehicles to their fleet. With help from Microsoft funding, LHR purchased a new refrigerated vehicle for food rescue pick-ups and mobile market delivery.
Like Loudoun Hunger Relief (LHR), Umi Feeds operates as a mobile service. “A lot of folks who are experiencing food insecurity have the double whammy of not having access to proper transport,” Clahar said. “They can’t access food banks and pantries, and so we go to them.”
Umi Feeds became a founding member of the Whitehall Terrace Community Garden, an urban farm that aims to ensure 75 percent of Atlanta residents are within a half-mile from healthy food. The garden resides in a “food desert,” Clahar said, where walking distance food options are convenience stores without fresh or healthy choices.
With help from a Microsoft grant, the garden was able to build additional beds for growing fresh, healthy produce for the neighborhood.
Communal outreach, connections, and education are crucial to provide help. “It’s all about personal connection,” Hampton said. “We are building bridges within the community.”