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Why the shelves of Meals by Grace are empty a week before Thanksgiving (and how you can help)
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FCN EXTRA: Why the shelves of Meals by Grace are empty a week before Thanksgiving (and how you can help)

By: Bradley Wiseman

Just a week away from Thanksgiving, the shelves of the Meals by Grace Food Pantry in Forsyth County are almost completely bare.

In what is generally considered the most charitable time of the year, Meals by Grace staff say that many factors are contributing to their shortages, but the end result is the same — the shelves of their pantry are bare less than a week from Thanksgiving.

“In my four years here, I have never seen it so empty in here,” said Meals by Grace Program Director Dewey Bain.

Nearly every day of the week, Bain is at the pantry, either helping out clients or doing paperwork in the small pantry storefront in the Ingles Shopping Center off Canton Road, readying for the next day.

Meals by Grace Food Pantry

Where: 432-A Canton Road, Cumming, GA 30040

When: Business days from 8 to 5

Contact: (404) 426-4055 or mealsbygrace.org

Need: Canned meats, vegetables and whole meals, soups and cereals

As he walks among the tall plastic shelves of the pantry, Bain reflects that to make matters worse in their shortage, they have had record numbers of families come through the pantry.

"Yesterday, we had 76 families come through the pantry ... those 76 families registered with 238 people at their houses," he said. "That’s a new record for Meals by Grace on a pantry day.”

In the back half of the pantry, Bain walks through stacked boxes of canned foods, ready to go out on the shelves on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  He said that normally, the 50 or so families they see each day, will have their pick from an abundance of meats, breads, vegetables, canned goods and other items, but with more people and less supply, families rarely get their full allotted amount.

"This looks like a lot of food,” he said, pointing at the boxes of canned goods. “Until you start putting it out on the shelf and then giving it to 50 or 60 families, then it goes quick." 

According to Meals by Grace Co-Founder Suellen Daniels, each month their overarching ministry, Fill Ministries, distributes about 40,000 pounds of food to Forsyth County residents. Daniels said even their most recent donation drive from the Cumming Fair & Festival was quickly exhausted in a day.

Daniels called the ministry’s last year the “perfect storm” of bad luck and challenges. From low donation funding and refrigerated truck problems to an unidentifiable fungus at their aquaponics farm, the Fill Ministries family is having a tough year.

"In the eight years we have been in existence, we have never had a year like this year," Daniels said. “Normally this time of year we're plush … But this year has been an anomaly.”

“I've never been short on funds this time of year and I've never been short on canned goods in this time of year before, ever, in all the eight years we've been doing this.”

 Daniels said that right now they are stuck in a cycle that is keeping the shelves bare and stockpiles low.

On the one hand, they have a high demand from their various ministries, an excess of 200 families a week.

 On the other hand, having low funds from donations prevents them from buying more at their main distributors and repairing their refrigerated truck.  This, in turn, cripples their capability to gather large amounts of food from distributors, leading to less food on the shelves.

She said that without their truck they have been relying on one lone employee with a pickup truck to make their pickups from local businesses, stores, donation drives and trips to the food banks in Gainesville and Atlanta.

"All those things are wonderful, but he can only be in one place at a time with one small pickup truck,” she said. “So it's just a challenge right now."

Until they can secure end of the year funding and begin the process of getting grants, she said that they are relying on members of the community to come to their aid. 

Daniels said that there are many ways that people can get involved and help them out this holiday season, but in the end, it boils down to food donations, monetary donations and volunteering.

She said that for food donations, the “biggies” are canned soups, canned meats, meals in a can like ravioli and beef stew, and cereal. But in the end they will accept almost anything donated.

"We love it whenever we get things that are on the list,” she said. “But it really doesn't matter when your shelves are empty."

A full list of their needed items can be found online at mealsbygrace.org.

Interested donors can also donate their money or time to Meal’s by Grace and Fill Ministries, Daniels said, explaining that they can use money donations to fill in gaps and can always use extra hands.

"If people want to come and serve and learn more about us before they give, then we invite them to go on the website and learn about us and then sign up to come and volunteer,” she said.

Daniels also said that they will be having an end of the year fundraising event at their north Forsyth farm, a watch party for the SEC championship game, with food and drinks catered by Cherry Street Brewing.  More details on this event can be found on their website.

"This just seemed like the perfect timing for us to be able to do something like that, and people love seeing the farm and seeing the progress that we've made at the farm," she said. "And obviously they can bring canned goods with them."