Cleveland Brownlee estimates he’s lost 20 pounds over the last year or so—and not by choice. The 72-year-old retired security guard from Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood was one of many new faces at the Rosel Fann Recreation Center mobile food pantry on Oct. 27.

Brownlee and many others at the giveaway said the cost of groceries for their families has skyrocketed over the past year as a result of inflation, which has impacted Black households more than most in Atlanta and across the country since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. That, in turn, has South Atlanta mobile food bank organizers asking for more donations and volunteers to help them feed needy families this holiday season as food insecurity in majority Black neighborhoods increases.

“It’s about four times what it used to be,” Brownlee told Capital B Atlanta of his typical grocery bill. “We don’t eat what you used to eat.”

The situation reflects a series of cascading challenges facing many who were already teetering on the edge of food insecurity before the looming holiday season rolled around. Many low-income residents stopped receiving pandemic-related aid money earlier this year. Overall inflation has leveled off in recent months due to lower gasoline and other energy costs, but food prices are still rising. And while there’s evidence overall food options are growing in the metro area, many Black Atlantans are still living in or near food deserts, researchers say.

The end result is the rising cost of food, and of getting to it, has made feeding their families more difficult for many this fall. Food bank organizers, including Ashley Keyes, executive chef at CHOICES, say hardship for the less privileged is growing with the holiday season just ahead.

“People struggle with food insecurity year round, but during the holiday times Thanksgiving and Christmas cost a family easily $200 to prepare a family meal,” she told Capital B Atlanta. “That can equal one to two weeks of groceries.”

Brownlee was among many seeking assistance at the bimonthly charitable giveaway organized by the Center Helping Obesity In Children End Successfully (CHOICES) and a coalition of nonprofit aid groups, including MUST Ministries, who are battling food insecurity in disproportionately Black and low-income parts of the city.

Cleveland Brownlee, 72, (right) picks up groceries from the CHOICES mobile food pantry inside the Rosel Fann Recreation Center in South Atlanta on Oct. 27, 2023. (Chauncey Alcorn)

Meat, poultry, fish and egg prices in the region were up more than 5% year-over-year in October. Overall grocery prices rose 2.4% year-over-year in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest regional Consumer Price Index report for the Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Roswell metro area. That’s added to the inflationary spike in food prices that began with the pandemic year of 2020.

Keyes said the rate of resident food aid requests from CHOICES has doubled in recent weeks.

“Families are coming to us saying, ‘Hey, I need groceries on a weekly basis, not just every other week,’” she told Capital  B Atlanta. “I’m sending out packages throughout the week using DoorDash for families who can’t get to our pantries on a regular basis for emergency aid, so we are growing in need.”

Food pantry volunteers stationed standing near tents in the parking lot hand out provisional supplies including chicken, eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables and nonperishable items to needy individuals and families who drive to the rec center. The long line of vehicles often filled with single parents, their children and the elderly runs out of the parking lot and up an adjacent street.

The rec center is located in what food bank organizers say is a food desert, with the nearest major grocery store, a Kroger, located nearly two miles away. Even at that distance, getting there to pick up food is a challenge for some nearby residents, many of whom don’t own vehicles. Many travel to the food bank on foot or by bus. 

That journey is reflective of what many Atlanta residents must do to stock food in their homes. While the share of Atlanta residents living within a half mile of fresh food grew from 52% in 2015 to 75% in 2020, according to Aglanta, a food informational website managed by the city, an Emory University study released this year found residents in majority-Black and low-income neighborhoods still have much less access to fresh produce than other more affluent parts of the city.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, Keyes said CHOICES and MUST Ministries need more volunteers, more food donations and more money to help feed families struggling to make ends meet. She estimated the number of people attending their bimonthly food bank has risen from 600 folks earlier this year to 800 during the fall. She said the rec center was closed for Veteran’s Day on Nov. 10, so the food bank was moved to the nearby Atlanta Maranatha Seventh-day Adventist Church parking lot where organizers ran out of food and were forced to turn people away.

“I even got a lot of calls and some text messages with some very upset clients and neighbors who weren’t able to be served because we ran out of food by 12 o’clock or so,” Keyes said.

The cost of meat has been a major financial hurdle for Union City resident Aneisha Shabazz who visited the Rosel Fann food pantry in late October for the second time in recent months to pick up provisions she needed to feed her family.

“I didn’t want my kids hungry,” the 35-year-old single mother of four said while sitting at a bus stop across the street from the rec center. “Steak is extremely higher than it used to be,” Shabazz added. “Chicken at certain locations is cheaper, but everything is pretty much high now.”

Tony Bacote, 63, and his wife Harriett Bacote also visited the pantry for the first time on Oct. 27. They said their grocery bill has doubled since the pandemic started in 2020.

“We cut back on a lot of things just to get the necessities,” Harriett said. “[The food bank is] going to help me and my grandkids a whole lot.”

Keyes said people and companies who want to donate or volunteer for the CHOICES food pantry can do so on the organization’s website. The group’s Thanksgiving giveaway takes place from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18. Its next and final giveaway for the year is set for 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8.

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.