iServe Ministries prepares to give out 30,000 pounds of food through its mobile food pantry to families in need.
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iServe Ministries prepares to give out 30,000 pounds of food through its mobile food pantry to families in need.

Families trickled into an empty parking lot Saturday morning in Commerce hoping to pick up free food. Before the sun had even come up, more than 100 families had gathered. Christian rap music blared from speakers set on a makeshift stage as attendees settled in and prepard to wait their turn. Some wore masks or pulled jackets up to cover their mouths and noses, in response to coronavirus fears, while others seemed unconcerned. 

MORE: See the latest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia.

 

Once a month, nonprofit iServe Ministries gives away 30,000 pounds of food in Athens, Commerce and Pendegrass through the organization's mobile food program.

 

In each city, volunteers typically supply about 250 to 300 families with food, toiletries and other services, but this past weekend, they had more than 400 families show up.

 

The founder of iServe Ministries, Jeff Grant, attributed the increased number of families to concerns over COVID-19 and the closing of schools across Georgia.

 

In Jackson County, where they distributed food Saturday, about 50% of students receive free or reduced meals, according to the Georgia Department of Education. 

 

"With these kids not knowing maybe two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, that they're gonna be out of school … that causes chaos in somebody's life,” Grant said.

 

 

Families and individuals showed up for a variety of other reasons as well. For many like Makayela Banwarth, it was their first time. 

“We needed the food and stuff because my job is just starting, so I haven’t even gotten paid yet," Banwarth said. "This is going to help us last until my first check.”

Cindy and her family drove to the mobile food bank in Commerce from Alto. They had received food from the organization in the past, and were back Saturday to collect more. She said the work that iServe Ministries is doing is crucial to the community. 

 

“There are a lot of people out here that do need help," Cindy said. "And if we don't give them help, or they don't give us help, then there are going to be an awful lot of hungry folks out here.”

 

As for Mike Tolbert, it wasn't so much the fear surrounding coronavirus that motivated his attendance, but rather the chaos that ensued becasue of it.

 

"I don't want to go to Walmart and have to fist fight for toilet paper," Tolbert said. "The way I look at it, if I get it and I get sick and die, I'll be at home with Jesus. So I'm going to win either way."

 

 

Despite increased alarm around the country related to the novel coronavirus, iServe Ministries said volunteers will continue to hold their mobile food bank events as long as the municipalities in which they operate allow them to. The organization has made changes to their distribution system, however, to protect those in need as well as their volunteers.

They ditched their usual system of forming a long line in favor of a paper ticket system that assigned families a number. Volunteers staggered smaller groups of people by their ticket numbers. Throughout the event, Sherry Grant, one of the organization's founders, picked up a bullhorn and reminded people to keep their distance from each other.  

 

With a lot of the donated food coming from stores like Walmart and Publix’s overstock, Jeff Grant was concerned about the possibility of a decrease in their food supply due to panicked people clearing out grocery stores.

 

As of Monday, March 16, the organization announced that its mobile food bank would be showing up in Pendegrass on Tuesday as planned. 

Volunteers load carts with food to distribute to families in need.
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Volunteers load carts with food to distribute to families in need.
Boxes of food ready to be distributed.
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Boxes of food ready to be distributed.