The Gratefull Dalton Give Back food drive didn't officially start until 11 a.m. Monday but by 10:45 a.m. volunteers were hard at work sorting food and boxing it for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, which serves Whitfield and several other counties.

"A big truck full of food from North Georgia EMC (Electric Membership Corp.) pulled up just a few minutes ago," said Melanie Hammontree, director of development for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

The food drive took place in downtown Dalton underneath the city parking deck next to the Burr Performing Arts Park. It was spearheaded by Believe Greater Dalton, a Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce-led effort to improve the community.

"We've got a DJ on the stage (at Burr Park) playing music," said Allyson Coker, project manager for Believe Greater Dalton. "Our plan was that people, families, would get lunch from one of our local restaurants and come to Burr Park and have lunch. But with this cold, windy weather, I don't think many people are going to do that."

Two years ago, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, more than 1,400 people gathered on Hamilton Street downtown for Gratefull Dalton, a community meal complete with turkey and dressing and plenty of new friendships.

Organizers hoped Gratefull Dalton would become an annual event but in 2020 Believe Greater Dalton decided not to hold Gratefull because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it held a drive-thru food drive for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, which serves 20 counties including Whitfield and Murray. Coker said after looking at the local COVID-19 numbers recently they decided to put Gratefull on hold for another year.

"We are excited to be able to do this again this year," said Sarah Murry, marketing director for Believe Greater Dalton. "With the pandemic, we still didn't feel like we could get back to setting up the long table on Hamilton Street and having everyone eat together. But we still wanted to do something to keep this event on people's minds and to give back to the community. The event last year was so successful. We gathered more than 3,500 pounds of food, and we hope to exceed that amount this year."

Hammontree said in addition to the 3,500 pounds of food the 2020 food drive collected more than $3,000 in monetary donations.

"And all of that stayed in Whitfield County, as will everything we collect this year," she said. "We have 35 partner agencies that will receive this food."

Hammontree said even though the economy has bounced back after last year's pandemic-related shutdowns there is still a strong need for aid.

"We know that most of our clients are working," she said.

Inflation has been growing at an increasing rate all year. The consumer price index surged 6.2% from a year ago in October, the most since December 1990. Hammontree said rising prices are putting a strain on the budget of many households, leaving them less able to afford food.

Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia President David Aft was among those who brought food.

"The food bank always does a great job of working with local agencies to help those in need," he said. "Hunger was an issue before COVID. Hunger is still an issue. It's a critical issue in our community, and events like this not only help collect food to help alleviate those needs but keep the issue in the minds of local citizens."

People were asked to bring canned goods with easy-open lids as well as shelf-stable, single-serve and family-size macaroni and cheese and pastas, cereal and single-serve breakfast items, peanut butter, bagged dry beans and snack bars. A steady stream of vehicles drove by, and volunteers unloaded the food, sorted it and boxed it.

Diana Garcia, a student from Southeast Whitfield High School, said it is important for her "to help the community."

Dalton High School student Jasmine Perez said she heard about the event through the National Honor Society chapter at the school.

"It's Thanksgiving, and I'm grateful for everything that I have," she said. "I feel so blessed. I just want to help others and give back to the community."

Abbey Markus, community engagement coordinator for the food bank, described the event as "awesome."

"There's a real need for food during the holiday season," she said. "But there's also a need during the summer. The need may not be quite as great as it is this time of year, but there's also fewer events like this."

Those who were not able to get to the food drive can find out more about the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, locate local partner agencies and make a monetary donation at the agency's website chattfoodbank.org.

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