Food banks feel pinch of sour economy, heightened need

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

GRAYSON -- At 3 p.m. on a sizzling Thursday afternoon, as the client line that had wrapped around a trailer at Grayson's Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry snaked inside, an ethnic hodgepodge of mothers and their children took seats in metal folding chairs. They sang, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," followed by a bilingual Bible reading, and then they got to business.

The food bank, one of six church-supported co-ops in Gwinnett, had offerings aplenty in the pantry trailer that neighbors its double-wide offices. The shelves, in fact, were swollen with all manners of groceries: Cheerios and Special K, tall stacks of peanut butter, jelly, evaporated milk and Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce.

The previous Friday, as volunteer Martha Lindsay recalled, had been a different story. Due to a groundswell in client needs, the pantry was picked almost clean.

"We ran out ... 20 items short in every order," said Lindsay, a Snellville resident and lunch lady by day. "I personally left the saddest I've ever been in my life. I cried all the way home."

Lindsay wasn't alone in her despair. Food banks across Gwinnett in recent weeks have been walloped by a perfect storm: a still-hobbling economy and the heightened need/lower donation dilemma that presents itself every summer. Kids, home from school, consume and consume, while donors, busy with vacations and ball games, tend to scoot contributions to the back of their minds.

So rattled was the co-op's director, Laura Drake, by the Friday "crisis," she issued a mayday e-mail -- replete with a photo of the pantry's vacant shelves -- that was still being forwarded to grocery stores and churches nearly a week later.

It worked.

"The summer is always the toughest," said Drake, the co-op's spry ringleader. "There is a built-in response to hunger at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In years past, we could live off (holiday donations) through the spring. This January, we ran out of food."

The situation appears no less critical elsewhere in Gwinnett.

At the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry, buttressed by 25 area churches, director Linda Freund said she put a record 11 homeless families in hotels last week. Leaders have had to dip into the agency's own capital to keep going.

"I will tell you that my checkbook has less than a month's supply of money to give out to people," Freund said. "We haven't run out in eight years."

The problem lies in skyrocketing demand, which began prior to the recession and shows no signs of slowing.

Five years ago, the Lawrenceville co-op handled 2,373 clients visits between January and June. That number has jumped more than 100 percent in the same time period this year. Ditto for the number of canned food times donated this year (228,803) versus 2005 (106,785), Freund said.

"We had 45 families waiting at the door when we opened up today," she said. "We've not turned anybody away. We have enough."

At Place of Seven Springs, a thrift store ministry in Snellville, director Debbie Dowdin is bracing for an influx of parents shopping for school supplies. She's had success soliciting donations in newsletters, but she fears her offerings -- from backpacks to pencils -- won't last long.

"There's just never enough, it seems," Dowdin said. "Right now we probably have enough for 50 children. I predict they'll last a day and half."

Drake takes some solace in data suggesting the worst may be over. Of the 1,820 families that visited last year, 20 percent were new clients. Client visits this year have remained constant, Drake said, but new visits have dropped significantly.

Among those new clients were laid-off professionals -- architects, builders and teachers -- along with long-term clients who are mentally ill or elderly, Drake said.

"We're meant for emergencies, but there's some we'll feed for the rest of their lives," she said. "And that's OK."

One client, Snellville resident and mother of two preteens, Corlette Head, said she leaned on Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry three years ago when her children's father died. She's considered the group a godsend ever since.

"I come here and they never change," said Head. "I always get what I need -- never been turned down."


Co-op directory

Helping in Gwinnett is convenient. Here's a list food banks:*

Hands of Christ - Duluth Cooperative Ministry

3395 Fox Street, Building 101, Duluth

Office number (for donations) 770-232-7454

Client number (for assistance) 770-623-9563

Monetary donations can be sent to P.O. Box 1974, Duluth, 30096

Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry

176 Church Street, Lawrenceville


Monetary donations can be sent to P.O. Box 1328, Lawrenceville, 30046

Lilburn Cooperative Ministry

5329 Five Forks Trickum Road, Lilburn


Monetary donations can be made at www.lilburncoop.org

Norcross Cooperative Ministry

2275 Mitchell Road, Norcross


Financial donations can be made at norcrossco-op.org

North Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry

70 Wiley Drive, Buford


Monetary donations can be sent to P.O. Box 672, Buford, 30518

Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry

1200 Athens Highway, Grayson (located behind Community of Grace Church)


Monetary donations can be sent to P.O. Box 1521, Snellville, 30078

Place of Seven Springs

3541 Stone Mountain Highway (U.S. 78) Suite #2

Snellville, 30078


*Office hours and donation times vary; call for more information.