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Food Drives Help Fill Food Bank Pantries, Ease Hunger

Labor Day event features Jeff Gordon car

Catherine Ashley, picks up groceries from Loaves & Fishes Ministry. AARP members are holding food drives to restock Georgia soup kitchens and food banks.

Kendrick Brinson/LUCEO

Catherine Ashley, 70, of Macon, fills out forms to pick up groceries from Loaves & Fishes Ministry. AARP members are holding food drives to restock Georgia soup kitchens and food banks.

Catherine Ashley gets bags of free groceries every month at a Macon food bank to supplement the $34 she receives in government food aid.

See also: SNAP primer: What are the benefits?

"If they didn't give us that food, I don't know what in the world we would do," said Ashley, 70, who lives on a disability check of $694 a month.

Ashley is one of many older Georgians who rely on both privately operated food banks and the grocery money she gets through the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly called food stamps.

The need is so great that many food banks are feeling the pinch. Nearly one of every six Georgia households sometimes runs out of money to buy groceries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

AARP and its members are pitching in to restock the shelves of food pantries.

And the AARP Foundation will donate $10,000 to the Atlanta Community Food Bank at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend.

AARP and the AARP Foundation have teamed with Hendrick Motorsports and Jeff Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, on the nationwide Drive to End Hunger.

"We're going to have a pavilion with a welcome area, a show car, a race simulator and a photo op area," said Janie Walker, associate state director for community outreach. People who visit the race pavilion will be asked to donate $24 — the number on Gordon's car — to the AARP Foundation.

Pamela Roshell, AARP Georgia state director, said soup kitchens and food banks fill an urgent need for people whose grocery budgets don't stretch far enough.

"In this economy, rising prices and medical costs are chipping away at the dollars older people have left for food," she said.

In March, AARP Georgia kicked off a campaign to benefit Macon's Middle Georgia Community Food Bank, Macon Rescue Mission and the Macon Loaves & Fishes Ministry.

Events all spring and summer will collect food for the organizations' soup kitchens and pantries.

Among the events is a canned food collection at Lundy Chapel Baptist Church in Macon July 15.

The donations are crucial, said Laura Lester, director of advocacy and education for the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

"The government expects the private sector to step in, but I'm not sure we can do much more. This network of food banks and churches is stretched beyond capacity," she said.

Next: AARP members restock food pantry shelves. >>

AARP Georgia also is working to raise awareness among older people that they might be eligible for government food assistance, Walker said.

"We recently asked volunteers in the AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program at a couple of sites to do benefit screenings to determine if any of our low-income members were qualified. So far, 20 of the 23 clients screened appear eligible for benefits."

Of the nearly 1.3 million people in Georgia who participate in SNAP, only 7 percent are 60 and older; just a third of eligible older people have enrolled (PDF) in the program.

"Some are overwhelmed by the paperwork, and others simply are not aware they are eligible," Lester said. "A lot of seniors don't bother applying because they think they're only going to get minimum benefits of $16 a month."

Benefits depend on income and size of the household. A married couple can receive up to $367.

Virginia Munir, 68, of Atlanta, advises eligible Georgians to apply for SNAP.

"If it's available to you, get it," said Munir, whose monthly income is $578. "I get $106 a month, but I still have a hard time."

Don O'Briant is a writer living in Lilburn, Ga.

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