‘We can end hunger:’ COVID-19 fueled a rise in food insecurity, Second Harvest is on a mission to stop it

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — The month of September marks Hunger Action Month, a time to raise awareness about the increasing rate of food insecurity nationwide and here in the Tri-Cities region.

It is a problem that can be solved, but it takes everyone in the community pitching in. At Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, the mission is clear.

“We can end hunger. And that’s what Hunger Action Month is all about. There are people in our region that are hungry, over 80,000 are food insecure. So many people have no idea,” said executive director Rhonda Chafin.

From July 2020 through June 2021, Second Harvest distributed over 16 million pounds of food, which is over 13 million meals. That is a 40% increase since before the pandemic hit.

“We know that the food insecurity rate during COVID was even as high as 90,000 people,” said Chafin.

Second Harvest went into overdrive to keep up with the rapid increase in need as the pandemic resulted in widespread job loss and financial burden. Federal assistance from the USDA and TEMA meant the nonprofit had more food than ever to give out.

“Normally, a family might receive a 30-pound box of food. During COVID relief and distribution, we were able to provide 120 pounds of food for families in need,” said Chafin.

The need is still great and Second Harvest continues to respond to higher than average numbers. In Tennessee, one in five adults and one in four children are expected to experience food insecurity as the pandemic rages on.

“What COVID has shown us is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what your job was, what your education was. You may need help and it’s okay to ask for it,” said Jessica Beare Edmunds.

Beare Edmunds and her family were food bank recipients for around three years after she lost her job in 2012.

“We just weren’t bringing in enough money. We made too much money to get any kind of assistance, but we didn’t make quite enough to really make ends meet,” said Beare Edmunds.

Looking back, Second Harvest made all the difference for her family. It helped them get back on their feet and on the road to financial stability.

“They provided that bridge, the bridge over troubled water,” she said. “There were many months where the food bank was probably 90% of what was consumed in our house.”

Beare Edmunds said people should never be afraid or too prideful to reach out to Second Harvest.

“I had to hit about rock bottom before I finally decided, ‘okay I need to ask for help.’ When I went to my pantry and was looking, I honestly didn’t know what I was going to cook for my children. I knew something had to change,” she said. “This is not a place that makes you feel ashamed. This is a place where there are people here who are supportive who want to help you and not to look down on you at all.”

Many local families have had to reach out for help for the very first time in the past year. Second Harvest says they will always step up to make sure no one goes hungry.

“We know the need is great during this time and we are gonna continue to provide relief to families in need,” said Chafin. “It shouldn’t be an impossible choice for a family. They shouldn’t have to make a choice between food and rent. A senior shouldn’t have to make a choice between food and medicine.”

To get involved with Second Harvest, visit their website to make a donation or volunteer.

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