Members of the Georgia Army National Guard spent Thursday afternoon packaging pasta at the Dalton warehouse of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

“This is all quite different than what we normally do,” said Col. Anthony Fournier, commander of the National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade, while watching soldiers carefully transfer uncooked pasta into clear plastic bags. Pallets of pasta, snack bars and other foodstuffs filled another area of the warehouse as members of the National Guard rushed to put each in the proper place.

“This brigade just got back from deployment to Afghanistan, for instance," Fournier said. "Here we are, we’re helping out at food banks. Needless to say, that’s really not part of our normal duties. The National Guard sees the void, so we’re here to help out.”

That need arose due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). Many food banks rely on volunteers to help perform the necessary tasks of sorting and packaging donated food into boxes ready for pickup. With social distancing and gathering guidelines in place, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank is among countless similar organizations facing a volunteer shortage, according to Director of Operations Chris Payne.

“Our volunteers are completely drying up as the coronavirus continues on,” Payne said. “We’re seeing some volunteers drop off quite significantly.”

At the request of the Georgia Food Bank Association, which is comprised of seven food banks, Gov. Brian Kemp deployed the National Guard to help meet sorting needs beginning this week.

“With all these restrictions, with people not being able to leave their homes, the only way they can operate is if we were able to come and help,” said 1st Lt. Adam Lanzo.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank sorts and packages donated and purchased boxes of food, which it then sends to food pantries to give out to the public.

“We’re serving about 20 counties in our distribution area,” Payne said, including Whitfield and Murray. “We’ll get food donated in, and we’ll take it and sort it out into individual items. Then we have a recipe to pull and put into one box. You may get pasta and pasta sauce in one box.”

According to Payne, one in eight people in that distribution area are classified as “food insecure.” As the virus spreads and people are unable to leave home, that number can worsen, Payne said. With an increasing need and decreasing volunteer pool, Payne said the intervention from the National Guard is essential to keep operations going.

“It allows us to replace some of the volunteers we’ve lost here, and it allows us to focus on building boxes for those agencies,” Payne said. “Without that volunteer support, our staff would struggle to meet the needs of our area. Now that the volunteers are drying up, we could not get it done without the National Guard stepping in.”

Members of the National Guard have stepped away from time with family and jobs to fulfill duties at food banks across the state.

“Over 400 soldiers have been called up in Georgia,” Fournier said. “Most of us are part time, and a lot of our soldiers have had to leave their full-time job to do this stuff.”

At the Dalton warehouse, work has been ongoing since Monday, and may not stop soon.

“We’re here as long as needed,” Fournier said. “We’re here to help Georgians through this crisis."

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