Cars no longer line Interstate 65 waiting in line at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church food bank in Montgomery, but Pastor Richard Williams says it’s still serving as many households as it did at the height of the pandemic.
Multiple nearby food banks have closed in the past few months due to inflation and lack of funding, Williams said, leaving the Beacon Center, which is set to open in 2022, to take the brunt. As the holidays approach, Williams and his network of supporters must find a way to double the amount of food they give away.
“We still have the same volume, but with less resources and support,” Williams said. “If what it looks like right now is a preview of what Christmas looks like, our food volume will have to literally almost double.” And we’ve already made a 40 to 50 percent increase in acquiring more food.
The center, located next to the Gaston Avenue Methodist Church in Montgomery’s West Side, provides comprehensive services such as GED training programs, STD screenings, counseling and food boxes.
“We exist to remove barriers for our neighbors so they can have a better life,” Williams said. “And so for us, food is our number one access point.”
He estimated that nearly 400 households a week need food assistance, with 20 new households a day coming to the center to receive services for the first time.
To help offset costs, the Beacon Center began partnering with companies like Winn-Dixie, Walmart and Starbucks to restore food the stores didn’t sell, allowing volunteers to provide fresh produce and frozen meats along with dry goods in their boxes for food.
“We’re literally calling farms that are trying to bring food back from farms in a bigger way,” he said. “You know, we’re working to try to meet with other food partners so we can work together in a stronger way and just trying to find other ways to make things happen.”
This year will be the first holiday season since 2020 without pandemic programs like increased SNAP and WIC benefits, free, universal school meals and P-EBT, which have helped people buy food and reduced hunger levels across the country as inflation and supply chain disruptions made food scarcer and more expensive.
Between 2021 and 2022, child food insecurity across the country skyrocketed due to the end of these federal programs and the expanded child tax credit, experts say.
According to a United States Department of Agriculture report released last month, the rate of food insecurity in households with children has increased from 13 percent in 2021 to 17 percent next year. Feeding Americans estimates that about 13 million children in the United States do not know where their next meal is coming from.
“We know how to end child hunger in this country. We made progress before the pandemic started, and after it hit, we mitigated what could have been a massive and protracted hunger crisis because of smart investments in critical government programs. All that progress was eroded as those investments were reversed. Children and families deserve better,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign, in a statement.
According to a statement responding to the report’s findings, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said more than half of food-insecure families report using expanded federal assistance programs.
“The report is the latest evidence that as the pandemic began to wane in 2022, another public health problem — food insecurity — increased,” Vilsack said. “The experience of the pandemic has shown us that when the government invests in meaningful support for families, we can have a positive impact on food security, even during difficult economic times.”
In Alabama, one in five children experiences food insecurity.
The USDA report shows the state has been able to reduce household food insecurity by more than 5 percent over the past decade, but those numbers don’t reflect the day-to-day realities seen by Williams and other local organizations on the front lines of hunger.
“We have people who need food every day and they come and ask for it. People are still out of work and there is still a huge need,” said Claire Smith, director of missions and social services at the First United Methodist Church of Montgomery, which partners with the Beacon Center and directs people seeking food to their site.
Feeding Alabama, a statewide network of food banks and agencies, has developed an online database that allows people to find places where they can get free food and nutrition assistance near their address.
The organization’s website, like the Beacon Center, also provides benefits enrollment assistance to help people determine if they are eligible for programs like SNAP or WIC and then help them apply.
“We know there are more people coming to our food banks and there are more people who need to show up more often,” said Laura Lester, CEO of Feeding Alabama. “People who just can’t quite make ends meet and are often working families, elderly or disabled people who just can’t make ends meet and that need continues to grow.” There is steady growth, steady growth.”
Lester said he hopes the skyrocketing rate of childhood food insecurity can be leveled if more government policies are put in place, such as the upcoming farm bill, which legislates the country’s food policy and nutrition assistance programs.
“I’m concerned that there may even be additional restrictions placed on SNAP benefits in the farm bill, but I’m always hopeful that we can continue to advocate and the SNAP program will be strengthened in the farm bill and that our commodity program will be reinforced,” Lester said. “I really think there are some lessons we’ve taken from the pandemic where we’ve learned [certain food programs] they’re good, they’re working and they’re helping kids get fed… so that gives me hope.”
In the meantime, Williams and other organizations will still rely on donations and generosity from people in the state to keep the programs running.
“I think wherever they are, if they support those who are doing the work and who are on the front lines, I think it’s going to be very beneficial to our community,” Williams said. “And then also knowing that they can make a difference in their community by giving an hour and donating and things of that nature are really critical things that can help organizations like us, not just be here and trying to survive, but I’m actually thriving.”
For support or access to the Beacon Center, call 334-263-0950 or email [email protected].
For help finding food pantries, visit Feeding Alabama.
For help enrolling in SNAP or other benefit programs, speak with a contact specialist.
For information on how to donate to your local food bank, visit Feeding Alabama.
For information on how to volunteer at your local food bank, visit Feeding Alabama.