Need for food assistance is growing in the Soddy-Daisy area, where the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank saw around a 30% increase in clients over the past six months.
"Since the COVID restrictions were lifted, our client count has increased quite a bit," food bank volunteer Ray Woodall said by phone.
Operated by volunteers on donations and grants, the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank now serves about 950-1,000 people per month in the area stretching from Hixson to the Rhea County line, up from 650-700 people previously, Woodall said.
To help address the increase in food insecurity, Soddy-Daisy city officials recently agreed to lease a piece of property to the nonprofit KelCurt Foundation to build a municipal community garden where citizens can grow food free of charge.
"One of the issues that we see is that a lot of people don't have space to grow their own food," foundation President Curtis Cecil said at a recent Soddy-Daisy City Commission meeting. "This is the very first community garden here in the city of Soddy-Daisy that will actually give people a space to do so."
City officials purchased the garden property, which is near the wrestling facility at the old Soddy Daisy High School, from Hamilton County, Cecil said.
For the garden's first phase, the foundation plans to build 12 raised beds for community use, including two beds that will be accessible to people with disabilities.
"You can actually wheel into the area and actually work right there in a wheelchair without having to bend down or move, and anybody with mobility issues will be able to use that as well," Cecil said.
Two additional beds will be used for growing food that will be sold to provide funds to continue the project, aside from the 10% of produce from those two beds that will be donated to the food bank, Cecil said.
The garden will be open to all Soddy-Daisy residents, who can keep all of the food they raise. Users will be required to sign a lease and code of conduct stating they will abide by regulations such as the prohibition of pesticides, he said.
Cecil hopes to have the beds leased by the end of the year and ready for planting at the start of the spring season, he said.
The KelCurt Foundation received a $10,000 Kentucky Fried Wishes grant from the KFC Foundation to build the first 14 garden beds and a fence to surround them and keep animals out, Cecil said.
"We've got to find additional funding because it's going to take a lot more than that to get this thing going," Cecil said.
A portion of the property will be used as an educational pollinator garden, although that portion will take about three years to complete, Cecil said.
In addition to establishing a community garden, the KelCurt Foundation also grows food in hoop houses on three properties of Soddy-Daisy citizens who offered their land to grow food for the community.
The foundation, which also operates the Soddy-Daisy Community Library, plans to start similar community gardens in Sale Creek and other nearby communities in the seven counties served by the library, Cecil said.
The rest of the Greater Chattanooga area has also seen an increase in food insecurity this year.
The Chattanooga Area Food Bank, which provides most of the food distributed by the Soddy-Daisy Food Bank, saw an even greater increase in need at its Foxwood Food Center food pantry on Wilcox Boulevard in Chattanooga.
Last month, the Foxwood Food Center distributed 4,350 emergency food boxes. That's up from 2,656 boxes in October 2022, Chattanooga Area Food Bank Director of Community Engagement Kathy Martin said in an email.
Among the factors contributing locally to the increase in need are inflationary pressures such as the cost of food and housing, the end of pandemic-related aid and stagnant wages, she said.