Christina Szczepanski, Managing Director, Southeast, Reinvestment Fund

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join an interactive simulation called the Digital Community Food Experience, created by the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) in collaboration with Georgia Tech design students.

The aim of the activity was to help participants gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of hunger and explore the impact food insecurity has on individuals and communities.

Each participant had to work through real-life scenarios. In one of my instances, I was in a two-income household with three children under age 10. We had a combined monthly income of about $3,000 and between rent, utilities, healthcare, taxes and childcare expenses, we had about $6 for food each day for the entire family. I had to figure out how to use resources in the community and federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps, which enables people to use the benefits to purchase foods at participating grocery retailers) and others to stretch my dollars to feed my family nutritious, balanced meals each day. Oh, and my car had broken down. 

I failed miserably. Along the way I learned that programs have varying eligibility requirements. For example, income and family size have an impact on SNAP allotments–you may have had no extra income for food, but still earn too much to be eligible for SNAP. Due to limited resources, food pantries may turn people away based on where they live in order to prioritize serving those in need in their zip code. For those with health issues, prescribed diets become harder to maintain and can adversely affect health outcomes. 

My work at Reinvestment Fund is about investing in opportunities that allow all people to live healthy, safe and joyful lives. We invest in the civic infrastructure that supports equitable and sustainable communities. This includes having access to essential opportunities: affordable places to live, schools where children can flourish, and nutritious food. Every year, we provide millions in capital to help nonprofits and social entrepreneurs make these opportunities available, particularly to communities of color and those that have been historically marginalized. 

For more than two decades, Reinvestment Fund has invested in building a more equitable, sustainable and inclusive food system. This includes financing enterprises that grow, manufacture, distribute and sell food. Our financing is typically used to expand facilities, increase healthy food options, bridge capital gaps and purchase new equipment. 

The onset of the pandemic has only exposed the fragility of our food systems and food supply. It has made plain the enormous burden shouldered by those who grow, pick, process and distribute our food. It has also resulted in precarious economic conditions that have further grown food insecurity.  

Feeding America estimates that 1 in every seven Americans experienced food insecurity last year, compared to 1 in every nine prior to the pandemic. Many individuals and families became newly food insecure during this time and had to navigate the reality of accessing enough nutritious food to lead active, healthy lives. 

In our region, the ACFB saw thousands of families turn to them for the first time ever, even as the food bank faced new constraints with social distancing and fewer volunteers. The food bank saw an estimated 48% increase in food insecurity in its 29-county service area. They are distributing over 60% more food each month currently than the same period prior to the pandemic. 

A big part of their ability to step up to meet the demand has been having the right facility to tackle the unexpected challenges of this past year. Together with PNC Bank, Rural Development Partners, and Kroger Co., Reinvestment Fund helped finance their new 345,000 square foot headquarters in East Point allowing ACFB with its extensive community partner network to rapidly scale up their response and get more food to neighbors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In addition to distributions to its regular partners during the pandemic, ACFB has also been supporting mobile distributions and pop-up events with other partners in the region including the City of Atlanta and Gwinnett County. ACFB has also partnered with Second Helpings Atlanta, the region’s largest food rescue nonprofit, to start the Atlanta Community Kitchen Project. This project used commercial kitchens that were closed during the pandemic to produce meals for food-insecure families while putting displaced food service workers back to work during that time.

Recognizing that millions of Americans do not have enough to eat, the federal government has expanded food assistance programs, including boosting SNAP benefits for eligible households. The administration also recently extended its waivers for school meal programs through next summer to ensure that children get the nutrition they need. These efforts are making a difference as food insecurity has dropped since the spikes seen with the pandemic.

However, as I encountered in the simulation, access to sufficient nutrition is an ongoing issue for too many families. Participation in food assistance programs is complicated by varying eligibility requirements and differences at the state level. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a federal tax credit that delivers an extra boost to low-wage workers in the form of a tax refund. Many states have a local version that matches the federal assistance to provide more help to families in need. Unfortunately, Georgia is not among the 30 states that have some form of a state-level EITC.

For many families newly facing hunger, navigating the complex web of programs can be difficult and stressful. In this region alone, ACFB estimates that nearly 1 million people lack enough food to eat. This includes 1 in every four children in the region. 

Investing in a sustainable Greater Atlanta means making sure that all families have what they need to thrive—and being able to access nutritious, affordable food is a big part of that equation. Whether it is donating to food banks, increasing awareness of food assistance programs or advocating for making it easier for families to use them, each of us can play a part in helping to eliminate the barriers to food access.

This is sponsored content.

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