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A new study shows that one in five people and more than one in four children in the Chattanooga region and Northwest Georgia could face hunger as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic's economic impact.

These numbers indicate a projected 40% increase in overall food insecurity and a more than 50% increase for children as the coronavirus continues to spread in Hamilton County, Whitfield County and other surrounding counties.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank is a member of Feeding America, the country's largest hunger-relief organization. It publishes a study and interactive map every year that looks at the severity of food insecurity and hunger in the country. The annual study analyzes historical statistics to show what needs there are in the community and how Feeding America is meeting those needs.

This year, Feeding America looked at unemployment rates and poverty numbers to make projections for a first-of-its-kind study to explore how food insecurity will be affected due to COVID-19.

Sophie Moore, director of community outreach for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, said she remembers March 13, the day a national pandemic was declared, as the day everything changed.

"COVID-19 impacted us in three major ways," Moore said. "We immediately had an increase in demand, we had a 30% sharp decline in donations and the charitable food supply chain was impacted just as severely as the grocery stores."

All 20 counties served by the Chattanooga Food Bank are projected to see increased rates of food insecurity, according to the study. Two of the three counties projected to see the biggest jumps are Catoosa and Whitfield counties in Georgia.

For those who need help

— Residents of Hamilton County should dial 211 to request a voucher for an Emergency Food Box or visit chattfoodbank.org/hungry to find a community food pantry.

— Residents who live outside of Hamilton County should visit chattfoodbank.org/hungry to find food resources close to home.

— To find out about eligibility for help buying groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, call the Food Bank at 706-330-4562 or send a message to lsanchez@chattfoodbank.org.

Catoosa County is expected to see a 52% increase and a 69% increase for children, while Whitfield County is projected to see a 42% increase overall and a 57% increase for children.

The study shows Hamilton County will see a 43% increase overall and a 65% increase for children.

Rosanne Diehl at Christ's Chapel Share and Care Mission in Ringgold said her food pantry has seen surprisingly low numbers since the pandemic started and has heard similar reports from nearby partners.

Diehl said a combination of stimulus checks, tax returns, organized food drives, schools supplying kids with food throughout the week and in some cases people making more money through unemployment than their jobs have contributed to the pantry's low numbers in April and May.

"The food drives in our area have seen an average of about 150 people every time," she said. "We typically serve about 400 households a month and we're seeing now about half of that."

Diehl said she and her staff are preparing for a very busy summer. She called this moment "the calm before the storm" and noted that 21% of the clients that have used the food pantry this month used it for the very first time.

"While I'm not seeing regular clients' faces as much, I'm seeing folks who are newly unemployed, and those kinds of clients have really started to increase."

Though donations from churches and schools largely have gone away due to the coronavirus, Diehl said personal donations from families and people in the community have filled the gap.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank and its more than 200 partner agencies serve a 7,000-square-mile area. Last year it served 13 million meals, and staffers are expecting an even busier year starting this summer.

The Food Bank responded to an initial 30% increase in the need for services when the coronavirus started to spread but, as many in the food industry found out, disruptions to the national food supply chain compromised its ability to access products.

Moore said it's taken about two to three months for orders of non-perishable food items and other essential goods to be delivered and to catch up with normal demand.

"Things are starting to stabilize a little bit and we got through that initial shock," she said. "But now we're preparing for thousands of people who are impacted by the economic fallout of the coronavirus shutdowns."

The food supply chain is affecting everyone in the system from producers and restaurant owners to employees, parents and kids. Food insecurity is a measure of the availability and access to food. Moore said it can take many forms and is a complex issue.

For those who want to help

Donating $1 helps to provide four meals for someone in need. Financial donations give the Chattanooga Food Bank the most flexibility to address the highest need at that time.

— Help is needed to sort and pack food at the Food Bank's Chattanooga warehouse as well as distribute food at mobile pantries throughout its service area. To volunteer, visit chattfoodbank.org/involved to sign up for shifts.

"Food insecurity can mean you live in a food desert and there is a lack of affordable transportation to get something other than snacks wrapped in plastic," she said. "It could also mean parents are skipping meals so that their kids can eat or not having the time or means to go get apples and oranges but grabbing something off the dollar menu at McDonald's."

Most of the people the food bank serves work, but they are considered overworked and in many cases living paycheck to paycheck, Moore said.

She said food insecurity numbers were improving in the area and were close to pre-recession numbers before the pandemic.

Since the pandemic, the food bank tripled its capacity for its emergency food box program and revamped it to deal with the impacts of COVID-19. Before, Moore said, the food bank depended on physical contact, but the organization has transformed to make sure safety plays a key role while they provide the same level of service.

The food bank has added at least 20 mobile pantries, struck a partnership with CARTA to deliver food to communities in need, worked with the National Guard at the Dalton facility and is taking part in the nationwide Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that helps farmers get their produce to needy people.

So far, the food bank has delivered close to 400,000 pounds of food through the food assistance program.

"We have been trying to be really diligent with the food we're blessed with," Diehl said. "The fresh produce and beautiful boxes from farmers have really helped us out. It's nice to give out healthy food, too."

For more information on what the Chattanooga Area Food Bank is doing and its programs such as Sack Packs for kids in the summer, meal-oriented Family Bags or the SNAP program that is helping families whose children receive free or reduced school meal programs through the new "Pandemic EBT," visit its website at chattfoodbank.org.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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