Thanksgiving is a time when most Americans enjoy a great feast.
But even as the focus this week is on eating and fellowship, there’s a concern that an increasing number of people in Georgia and the nation are facing “food insecurity.’’
The term describes people who don’t have consistent, dependable access to enough food.
Worry over food insecurity spiked with the national cut in food stamp benefits that began Nov. 1. About 1.9 million Georgians will be affected.
Another problem is the swelling in Georgia’s waiting lists for the Meals on Wheels program, which serves seniors in their homes.
And to add to all that, an administrative snafu has hampered food stamp availability in Georgia this month. A problem with sending renewal notices for eligibility has affected thousands of Georgia food stamp recipients.
“We have determined that these clients either did not receive notification of their need to complete their renewal last month or their notice of renewal arrived too late for them to renew,’’ a Department of Human Services official said in a recent email. “As a result, these cases closed effective Nov. 1.”
The email said the state is asking these people to file a new application for benefits online. “Please note, that affected customers who reapply by Nov. 25 will not experience a loss in benefits,’’ the official said.
The email put the number of people affected at 66,500, but officials with the Department of Human Services told GHN late Tuesday that the number of terminated cases was an estimated 25,000. It’s unclear how many of them have been reinstated.
But many of these people don’t have access to a computer, Vicky Kimbrell, health law attorney at Georgia Legal Services, told GHN on Tuesday. Callers to the state’s phone line wait an hour or more while on hold, she said.
“We have been overwhelmed with people calling, saying they didn’t get their food stamps,’’ Kimbrell said. “A lot of folks don’t know what they were going to do for Thanksgiving.’’
DHS officials say those who were cut off will get benefits retroactive to Nov. 1 when they are reinstated.
The food situation in the state, though, isn’t just a litany of bad news. Donors have stepped up, as have food manufacturers and volunteers, according to Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association.
Food banks in Georgia distributed a record 103 million pounds of food last year, she said.
And charities will offer Thanksgiving meals for the needy across the state.
On a regular basis, though, nearly one in five Georgians experience food insecurity, a rate that’s higher than the national average. Food insecurity is driven by poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and poor access to nutritional food, Craft said.
People who are often hungry or eat poor quality food are at greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and even obesity, the state Department of Public Health said.
Craft notes that hunger and obesity are linked. People who are food insecure, she says, “are buying for maximum calories.’’ Those are usually the processed foods, which are high in fat and sugar, she said.
Pregnant women who don’t have proper nutrition are at greater risk of preterm delivery and are more likely to have low-birthweight babies. Those babies, as they grow older, are more likely to suffer developmental delays and other physical problems, Public Health said in a recent publication.
And without enough to eat, children can suffer from impaired cognitive development, as well as weakened bones and immune systems.
More than 700,000 children in Georgia were food insecure in 2011, or about 28 percent.
Food stamp cutback
The recent food stamp cut occurred when funds from the stimulus expired. Food stamp benefits for about 47 million people nationwide were reduced in a $5 billion cut in annual funding.
That means a family of four that had been receiving $668 a month in benefits will now have $36 less.
Georgia will see total benefits cut by $210 million, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Augusta Chronicle recently reported that in Richmond County, 21.8 percent of families were below the poverty line and 19.2 percent received food stamps.
Jessica Smith of Augusta must shop for groceries with $20 less per month to feed her and her two children, the newspaper reported.
“You have to make food stretch,” said Smith, whose benefits were reduced to $347 monthly. “Some days you’ll have to just eat sandwiches. Some days you’ll have to go without eating at all.”
GBPI policy analyst Melissa Johnson said food insecurity is likely to worsen with the cut in food stamps. “This is not the greatest time, with the holidays,’’ Johnson added.
Also looming, she noted, is the negotiation over the congressional farm bill. The House version would cut $39 billion over 10 years, while the Senate bill would reduce the program by $4 billion.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s older people have among the highest rates of hunger, said Debra Furtado, CEO of Senior Connections.
“It is a tragedy,’’ she said. “Hunger is a real issue for people.’’
Many seniors, Furtado said, eat only one meal a day — the one they get from Meals on Wheels. “A lot of seniors live on cereal,’’ she said.
And the Meals on Wheels waiting list is longer than ever as providers await another round of sequester cuts, Furtado said.
Food banks statewide are seeing unprecedented high demand, said Craft. Many people picking up food are first-timers. With the economy still sluggish, such people are often out of work.
“This cut to food stamps, on top of increased demand, is really stretching the network,’’ Craft said. “The private sector can’t make up the cuts.’’