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While trends show Forsyth County food insecurity dipping, local experts say problems still exist
Face of Hunger 1 090119 web
Staff illustration

When Suellen Daniels thinks about what food insecurity truly looks like, the story of a particular Forsyth County family immediately comes to mind.

Daniels, the co-founder of Meals by Grace, said that when the family – a grandmother, mother and her two young children – began receiving home deliveries of food, they had not eaten in three days prior to the delivery.

The next Sunday, when food was delivered to the family again, they were eagerly waiting for Meals by Grace volunteers on the front porch of their trailer.

It was only later that Daniels was told by a school social worker that the family’s 8-year-old girl had woken the family up on Sunday at 6.a.m., so they could clean, tidy and remove any obstacles, "just in case those nice people bring food again."

"That's food insecurity,” Daniels said. “When an 8-year-old will get up in the dark on Sunday morning to try to remove obstacles and barriers that in their little mind they perceive could be a prohibition from getting food."

As tragic as the story is, charity groups say that other similar stories are all too common, affecting people and families of all races, backgrounds and economic levels.

Feeding America defines food insecurity as a “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods,” reportedly affecting 11,110 or 5.3% of people in Forsyth County and 14.4% percent of all Georgians in 2017.

In plain terms, food insecurity affects families that make just enough money to pay the bills, and who may make too much to qualify for extra assistance, but are one bad day or week away from not having enough money to buy food.

"That affects people no matter what economic level they are at, but it's the most painful at the lower middle class,” Daniels said. “They were hanging on and making due, and then something knocked them for a loop, maybe they lost a job, maybe mom got sick, dad got sick, one of the children got sick, and a job had to stop or some circumstance had to change for them to be able to manage that situation and now they aren't making it anymore without help."

Even after a family pulls through a tight spot, there may be a ripple effect that can follow them even after they are no longer food insecure.

Gail Freund, lead school social worker for Forsyth County Schools, said the ripple effect can easily be seen in children that live or have lived in food insecure households.

"When you are hungry, it's hard to do your best," Freund said. "Students who are food insecure aren't always able to focus, they are focusing on the challenges of food as well as some of the other peripheral issues that go along with food insecurity: 'Are my lights turned on? Am I going to have food? Is my mom going to lose her job? Are we going to have to move again?'"

This can cause education gaps which can compound and grow as students move schools and grades, she said.

"They build on one another," Freund said. "If you don't have good grades, you can't go into post-secondary education, then you're less likely to have a secure job and the cycle can sometimes continue."

Food insecurity has changed over the years. It may seem like it has gotten better with the unemployment rate continuing to drop and poverty decreasing, but Kay Blackstock, executive director at the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, said income inequality has not gotten better. That puts people further and further into food insecurity.

“Primarily, it’s for financial reasons, because if you've got money to get on the bus you can get to the store,” Blackstock said. “But there are pockets where multiple factors are keeping people food insecure.”

It could be caused by a slew of reasons: transportation, financial resources, unemployment.

That’s why Daniels says that it’s so important to have multiple groups in different pockets of the community that people can turn to for help for their specific situation. Some families might just need access to a client choice food pantry to help fill in the gaps. Others might need home delivery from Meals by Grace or The Place of Forsyth County due to a long-term medical condition or lack of transportation.

Feeding America data suggests that levels of food insecurity in Forsyth County have begun to dip over the last few years, dropping from 6% of the population in 2015 to 5.3% in 2017, but on the ground, it does not feel as if things have gotten better, Daniels said.

Each week, Meals by Grace feeds about 1,200 people at their client choice pantry and delivers food to 70 other families, and those numbers have been steadily growing as the county has grown, she said.  

“Our home delivery family requests are way up,” she said. "And our pantry usage in the last 12 months is up 200 people a week."

Based on data collected by Forsyth County school system social workers, they estimate that about 125 families are on the “emergency waiting list” for home deliveries of food.  

In the school system, Freund said they have seen an increase in the number of students applying for free and reduced lunch and the unaccompanied homeless youth population.

A lot of factors go into play when determining if a family is food insecure, but students are much more likely to be food insecure, she said.

If a student does appear to need help, Freund and other school social workers are there to reach out to the family and find out if there are more services that the family could qualify for, directing them to the appropriate local resources.

"A lot of families are one terrible event away from being food insecure,” she said. “I know a lot of times we think we have a certain image of what a food insecure family might look like, but sometimes they really are our neighbors and the people that we know ... sometimes it’s families that you wouldn't expect."

Gainesville Times writer Layne Saliba contributed to this story.