MUST Ministries feeds 34,164 since pandemic ramps up

Welcome to Cobb County brick sign at Henderson Road on Veterans Memorial in article about MUST Ministries during the pandemicCobb County welcome sign on Veterans Memorial at Henderson Road (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

MUST Ministries fed a staggering number of people in recent months.

Figures released this week show the non-profit agency’s food service has fed 34,164 people in the eight weeks since the crisis ramped up, with 324,869 pounds of food distributed and 270,724 meals given.

That stacks up against the agency serving 33,547 people with ALL the services they provide in calendar 2019, not just food but housing and employment help as well. Agency officials say while food has been the most immediate need, there’s a strong undercurrent of rising demand for places to stay and job services.

“The numbers are pretty unbelievable to me,” said Kaye Cagle, MUST Ministries Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations.

 What’s more, she said, the food effort has proceeded with essentially no volunteer help due to social distancing concerns. She added that the picture has been further complicated because not all of their staff has been coming in due to risk factors they might themselves be facing or a fragile family member at home that needs to be looked after.

She said that while no volunteers or community service-assigned workers are building the 30-pound meal boxes and sorting incoming food, some helpers have carried food out to vehicles at 50 distribution locations. MUST pantries in three client service facilities and 39 neighborhood pantries in schools have all gone curbside. In addition, some pantry locations have had to shift to churches because campuses are closed for cleaning.

With vastly increased demand, church and neighborhood groups, businesses and others have mounted food drives because food banks were “wiped out initially,” Cagle said. They’ve also purchased food from membership-based warehouse facilities.

Dr. Ike Reighard, MUST President and CEO noted that the non-profit’s efforts in providing daily bread, as well as other initiatives, have been well-handled.

“It’s been a heroic effort,” he said “It’s been unbelievable to see people from different facets of the organization, finance, programming or whatever and now they’re filling boxes with food and out loading trucks…it’s literally brought me to tears in seeing the way our staff has continued to serve.” He said the feeding effort was running about four times heavier than normal the first few weeks of the crisis.

He said 12 and 14-hour days have been frequent as staffers have grappled with adapting their core missions of food, clothing, jobs and providing a place to stay.

The agency has connected 585 people to housing help since March 16 said Falecia Stewart, the senior director of housing for the non-profit.

That’s a number that Cagle calls “unreal” and a figure Stewart thinks is due for a sharp increase. The housing chief said they’re scrambling to find resources to deal with what some have predicted could be a 45 percent increase in homelessness.

“We think it’s going to skyrocket as restrictions on evictions run out,” said Stewart, saying that even while some families are protected from being tossed out at the moment, they will have to pay accumulated costs once the restrictions are lifted, an obligation that some may find impossible to meet.

Stewart said her department is placing some in hotels to quarantine prior to their being admitted to their 72-bed shelter as well as providing rent assistance for others in places like extended-stay facilities. But she said they are “leveraging” that allocated money increasingly to place more families in permanent residences. She added that while social distancing has proven to be a challenge, clients still have good access to services. She said that both clients and staff are provided with masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protection to reduce the spread of the virus.

The same safety concerns also have MUST working on revamping their employment help operation “because the old model was job coaching and people coming into our computer lab. So now we’re coming up with a new model that’s more web-based.”

(you can donate through their website, mustministries.org. For matching gifts: contact tcrosby@mustministries.org)

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