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  • Writer's pictureAda Wood

When givers can’t give

People are donating a smaller share of their income than at any point in decades—putting the squeeze on shelters, food banks, and other institutions that rely on charitable giving. But Atlantans are still finding other ways to help their neighbors.

 
A mother and daughter looking at an old, cobweb donation box
Illustration by Minh Huynh

Whether by donating money or time, Eim Well has always loved supporting causes she cares about. In the past, she’s given to shelters that assist women and children, buying feminine hygiene products at Costco to give them to those in need.


But her ability to do that changed in 2016, when a car accident damaged her spine. Her mobility limited, Well found herself unable to work—and unable to volunteer like she once did. She spent several years fighting for disability, finally receiving regular payments in 2020. Now, though, after she pays her bills, all she has left is $200 to get through the end of the month.


“Normally I run out of food two weeks before the next month gets here,” Well said. “Things have gotten a whole lot more expensive. I don’t understand how they think people are going to survive. It just takes so much out of a person’s mental capacity to try to make it every month.” With nothing left over in her own budget, she can’t give like she used to. “It’s painful because I’m a giver,” she said. “And I know these shelters are in need.”


“Normally I run out of food two weeks before the next month gets here. Things have gotten a whole lot more expensive. I don’t understand how they think people are going to survive.”

Feeding GA Families prepares boxes of food for its Monday Drive-Thru Food Pantry. | Photo: William Joyner

Well is one of a rising number of Americans who’ve had to pare down their giving in recent years. In 2022, charitable contributions fell for the first time since the Great Recession, declining by 3.4 percent, according to a report from the Giving USA Foundation and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Marking the lowest level of personal philanthropy since 1995, the dip followed a couple of unexpectedly strong years, when the outpouring of support that accompanied the beginning of the pandemic pushed donations in the U.S. to a record high of $471 billion in 2020.


Rising costs due to inflation, and the overall dour economic mood in the country, may be contributing to the subsequent decline. But just as these factors have reduced the capacity for many to give, they’re increasing the demand for food banks, housing assistance, and other social services—putting nonprofit providers in a tight spot.

Formerly a nurse practitioner, Jackie Martin switched careers 15 years ago to start Just Us Girls, an East Point–based mentoring program that helps middle and high school girls develop healthy lifestyles. Martin had to cut some programming in 2023, she said, due to the decline of funding since the height of the pandemic: “When I would call people directly, they would say, ‘I really can’t give this year’ or ‘I’ve been out of work.’”


Volunteers sort and restock items at Feeding GA Families' 24-hour Grab N Go Market. | Photo: William Joyner

Meanwhile, as she approaches retirement, Martin has had to cut down on her own charitable giving, which used to run into the thousands of dollars yearly, distributed among a number of different organizations. Now she’s giving less money to just two: the ACLU and Just Us Girls. “I’m so aware of when I go to the grocery store now, how little I bring home,” she said. “When you look at that, you have to cut back on everything.”


“I’m so aware of when I go to the grocery store now, how little I bring home. When you look at that, you have to cut back on everything.”

At the same time groceries have gotten more expensive, food pantries are also feeling the pinch. In a normal year, about 20 or 30 new families seek out the services provided by the food bank Warehouse of Hope, said its director, Emma Finger. But in 2023, the organization—which has also experienced a drop in both corporate and individual donations—saw at least 100 new registrations each week. “We have been serving our community since 1994 and the only time span that can closely relate to how bad people are hurting is in 2008 during the crash of the housing market,” Finger said.


“We have been serving our community since 1994 and the only time span that can closely relate to how bad people are hurting is in 2008 during the crash of the housing market.”

In 2020, a rise in philanthropic giving put wind in the sails of Feeding GA Families. The nonprofit was founded in Atlanta in 2010 by Ali Rivera, along with her mother, as a way to honor her grandmother, a native of St. Thomas who would cook for children in her neighborhood every weekend. The Riveras started out by preparing food to distribute to people experiencing homelessness in the metro Atlanta area, then expanded in 2015 to a food pantry near College Park.


Families receiving food assistance line up at Soul of South Fulton, an event funded by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and hosted by Fairburn First Baptist Church and VFW Post 6449. | Photo: William Joyner

Before Covid-19, Feeding GA Families was serving about 80 families a week. But once the pandemic hit, the number jumped into the thousands, and the organization expanded its operations across the state. While she took hope from the initial outpouring of pandemic support, Rivera said it didn’t last—though the heightened number of families seeking sustenance did. Compounding the problem is the end of pandemic-related additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which have been credited with keeping millions out of poverty during the pandemic. When Atlanta suspended SNAP emergency allotments in June 2022, the Atlanta Community Food Bank saw about a 40 percent increase in demand.


“The clientele that we’re seeing coming in are of all walks of life. Everybody’s having a rough time of it,” said Ali Rivera. “We went from the typical clientele—very low-income—to now, where we’re seeing more midlevel incomes coming in as well.”


“The clientele that we’re seeing coming in are of all walks of life. Everybody’s having a rough time of it.”

The holiday season only makes this turmoil more apparent, Rivera said: “This Thanksgiving, it hit home. We normally get at least one to two corporate donations of canned goods and nonperishable foods for the holidays. There were absolutely none this year.” Some of the former individual donors to the pantry are now its clients, she added.


A volunteer loads boxes of food into a car at a Feeding GA Families Drive-Thru Food Pantry event. | Photo: William Joyner

One silver lining: While financial contributions may be declining, other forms of support are on the rise. Hands On Atlanta, which connects people to local organizations that could use their help, has seen nearly triple the amount of volunteers activated as there were in 2019, and a “slow but steady increase in repeat volunteerism,” said Claire Arnold, the group’s associate director of community and civic engagement. “Some of our nonprofit partners have only one or two staff members, and have the responsibility of feeding thousands weekly. They simply don’t have enough hands to sort the food and pack the boxes in time to distribute by themselves, and that’s where volunteers come in. The work just isn’t possible without help.”


Despite her limited income and mobility, Eim Well has also found a way to help her neighbors: She’s been buying up hand warmers, which are relatively inexpensive, and driving around to distribute them to unhoused people.

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