NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A rising number of Tennessee families are choosing to skip meals or change their spending habits as food costs continue to increase.

In a Fall 2022 poll of more than 1,000 Tennessee parents, the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy found that over 40% of families reported low or very low food security — a 10% increase from the previous year.

Over 70% of those families said they have changed their spending habits because of an increase in food prices, with almost 30% of parents reporting skipping meals. The situation has left many turning to local food banks like One Generation Away (OneGenAway) based out of Franklin.

OneGenAway receives surplus food from grocery stores, farms, restaurants and caterers and redistributes that food to families facing food insecurity through mobile food pantries in Middle Tennessee, North Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

‘This is a real issue right now’

(Courtesy: OneGenAway)

Since Jan. 1, Chris Whitney, founder and CEO of OneGenAway, said the nonprofit has seen a 17% increase in the number of families lining up at mobile food pantries, and it’s often faces staff members have never seen before.

“Just for the general population, this is a real issue right now,” Whitney said. “We live in the United States of America. We’re not a third world country, so we think ‘Oh that’s happening over there.’ No, it’s happening with your neighbors.”

Lisa McCrady, Director of Communications at the Metropolitan Action Commission in Nashville, said there has been a noticeable increase in food insecurity among Davidson County families since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the need concentrated in North and South Nashville.

The Metro Action Commission, which has been running a free summer meal program for children for over 30 years, and nonprofits like OneGenAway don’t see that need decreasing any time soon. In fact, Whitney said he only sees it rising as school lets out for the summer.

“We always see a little bit of an uptick in people needing resources (during the summer),” Whitney said. “But that will be exacerbated this year by the sheer fact that everyone is suffering from the same thing.”

‘Everything’s costing more money’

(Courtesy: OneGenAway)

Several factors likely have more people reaching out for help, but the cost of food remains one of the biggest challenges. Whitney said the food purchased by OneGenAway has gone up nearly 20% in cost, with some staples like rice, pasta and beans nearly impossible to find.

“I think that’s a really hindering force and there’s just overall inflation,” he said. “Everything’s costing more money, so there becomes this breaking point and food just happens to be one of those things where people are like ‘I can do without that for a couple of days.’”

In February, McCrady said many families who receive food-purchasing assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) saw a decrease in their benefits as emergency allotments put in place during COVID-19 ended nationwide.

That on top of children being home during the summer could have a “ripple effect for families who already have very fragile incomes,” said McCrady, who added that additional utility and transportation costs can add up when children are spending more time at home.

Whitney said he expects to see a 25% increase in the number of families needing food assistance within the next couple of months, which according to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt can also have ripple effects on children’s health.

In a news release, Cristin Fritz, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell said growing up in a household experiencing food insecurity puts children at a higher risk of issues such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety and depression.

‘We’re going to get to the other side’

(Courtesy: OneGenAway)

However, Whitney said the “bright side” is that several agencies are working to help combat hunger in Middle Tennessee. McCardy said organizations that distribute food and offer free summer meals have a “tremendous impact” on families experiencing food insecurity.

While the amount of surplus food being provided by grocery stores has decreased because stores tend to be holding products for longer, recent partnerships with major national suppliers have helped OneGenAway purchase more food at a lower cost.

“That’s just been a godsend beyond belief because we know the demand’s going higher and we’re being able to really leverage the dollar in an amazing way to get resources into our warehouses,” Whitney said. “A lot of right now it’s cereal, protein bars and drinks.”

The Metro Action Commission receives funding through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to continue providing free breakfasts and lunches over the summer and is looking to partner with more community centers and camps to distribute food this year.

(Courtesy: OneGenAway)

“We don’t want food to be one of the things parents are worried about for their young person,” McCardy said. “That’s why it’s really important for us to really remind some of the sites to hopefully generate even more interest in partnering with us to provide these meals.”

The COVID-19 pandemic limited the amount of distribution sites as many community centers and churches implemented safety protocols, and McCardy said not all of their previous partners have since returned, limiting the number of meals distributed to about 3,000 per day.

However, the Metro Action Commission hopes to recruit at least 100 summer camps, churches and community centers — “any place a young person gathers” — as distribution sites this summer to provide over 6,000 meals per day from June 5 to July 28.

Whether a child is involved in a particular summer program or not, McCardy said they will be able to go to a site and have a free meal. For more information about the agency’s summer program or to apply as a summer site, call 615-862-8860, extension 70120.

More information can also be found online by clicking here. Whitney said OneGenAway encourages people who can afford to make donations to reach out in order to help meet increasing demand for food.

A full list of mobile food pantries, which occur every Saturday, can be found by clicking here.

“There are a lot of agencies like us out there that want to help you and get you through this season in life,” Whitney said. “It’s such an honor and privilege to be able to do that, and together we’re going to get to the other side.”