As the Community Assistance Center faces ever-growing demand for food in the pandemic shutdown crisis, it’s getting some reinforcements: Georgia National Guard soldiers.

The soldiers from the Guard’s 1177th Transportation Unit, based in LaGrange, are working three days a week stocking and packing items in the CAC’s food pantry at 8607 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. Part of a statewide pandemic deployment ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp to help nonprofits and senior care facilities, the soldiers came to the CAC via the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Posing outside the Community Assistance Center food pantry in Sandy Springs are, from left, Georgia National Guard soldiers Spc. Bethany Smith, Spc. Anthony Smith, Sgt. DeAnna Dorsey, Sgt. Jarell Thomas, Spc. Arantza Bueno and Pfc. Traquavius Johnson. (Special)

“That is exciting,” said Tamara Carrera, executive director of the nonprofit, which serves people in need in Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and part of Doraville. The soldiers, who arrived for duty April 8, “are pretty happy with what they’re doing. It’s hard work but it’s not dangerous work… And it makes them feel good,” she said.

And the CAC needs the help.

“Each week since the COVID-19 shutdown occurred, the number of families seeking food assistance goes up,” said CAC spokesperson Kristen Ristino. “We are now giving food to more than 500 households a week in three days a week of distribution.”

That includes 100 households in two senior residential buildings in Sandy Springs: Hellenic Tower on Roswell Road and Sterling Place on Allen Road. The CAC used to offer a shuttle to take residents from those buildings to the market-style food pantry, but is now delivering during the pandemic.

Spc. Bueno stocks items in the CAC food pantry. (Special)

“They help us a whole lot,” said Michele Epps, a Sterling Place resident and roughly seven-year CAC client who gets weekly groceries as well as fruits and vegetables from the new delivery system. “It’s very convenient for us. … They’re trying to help the people out here.”

The pandemic shutdowns forced the CAC to make rapid and major shifts in the way it operates while keeping up with the skyrocketing needs as residents were pushed out of work. Client in-take had to go virtual. The food pantry scaled back to three days a week and now operates as a takeout with pre-packed groceries. At one point, the CAC was running out of food staples.

Carrera said the situation has stabilized, in part due to other organizations offering food elsewhere in Sandy Springs, including a Fulton County Schools distribution at Lake Forest Elementary and temporary food pantries set up at local restaurants.

Sgt. Dorsey, left, and Spc. B. Smith stock shelves at the food pantry. (Special)

“It’s not the best,” said Carrera, but it’s working and “people in general are not falling through the cracks” unless they are completely unaware that nonprofit assistance is available. As of the first week of April, the CAC had three clients who had tested positive for COVID-19, Carrera said, but they had not visited any of the nonprofit’s facilities and there were no problems with getting them assistance.

Switching volunteers to virtual programs is shaking out as well, Carrera said. “We had to teach them some new tricks that they didn’t know. But they really raised up to the challenge and they’re working well,” she said.

That includes work on the rent assistance program, where the CAC says there has been a 400% increase in calls for help. Carrera said that most local landlords have been open to deals on deferring rent and waiving late fees. “I can’t say 100% of the apartments are cooperative, but a number of them are,” she said.

Sgt. Thomas packs a grocery bag for a client to pick up at the food pantry. (Special)

The issue now is running the system to meet the need, Carrera said.

“Our challenge is the demand. The demand is huge,” she said. “There are people calling us from all over the city, not just this area.”

Even the National Guard reinforcements are not enough, said Ristino, and the CAC is bringing in more volunteers at the pantry.

The group Sandy Springs Together and the Couchman Noble Foundation are offering matching funds for donations made to the CAC through their website. For more about the CAC and its programs, see its website here.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for Kristen Ristino and clarifies that volunteers, not paid staff members, were retrained. This story has been updated with the full names of the National Guard soldiers.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.