It is an honor to be joining the Saporta Report Thought Leader series, and a privilege to be co-authoring the Poverty and Equity column with my friend and colleague John Berry of Saint Vincent de Paul of Georgia.
As a brief introduction, Action Ministries is an Atlanta based non-profit organization, serving 12 cities across Georgia. Our work began as a local project in Atlanta during the 1960s, where a few people came together to support their neighbors who fell on hard times. For nearly 60 years, our work has mobilized volunteers to offer food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, and educational programs to close achievement gaps for families. Last year, Action Ministries served just over 133,000 people in Georgia with the help of about 15,000 volunteers. If you would like to learn more, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit us at www.actionministries.net.
My commitment to you in this space is to offer straight talk about issues that impact our most vulnerable neighbors in Georgia. I hope to offer a balanced perspective on issues related to poverty and equity while sharing stories of hope and opportunity as well.
Over the next few weeks, I will be updating you on a large and complex topic…food insecurity. What you may find surprising, is that food insecurity impacts 1 in 5 people in Georgia. To bring that closer, food insecurity likely impacts someone you know, and someone your children calls a friend. Food insecurity is a very real problem in our society today. It is not a problem generally attributed to lack of food, rather it is a problem of access and awareness.
Access to food, especially healthy food, is a challenge for many families who live in our community. A recent study by Scholastic stated that 61% of teachers surveyed say that they have kids in their class who come to school hungry (WABE 2018 report). Many of these students are from households who live in communities identified as “food deserts.” Food deserts are defined by the USDA as communities where access to fresh and whole foods are limited for low-income populations who live more than 1 mile from a fresh market.
In the Metro Atlanta area, the most recent data from the USDA identifies 187 low-income census tracts where food deserts exist. These tracts include a total population of just over 515,000 individuals, with 50% of these residents living more than one mile from fresh food sources. The most startling statistic for these communities is that 143,000 children experience this reality daily, and do not have access to fresh foods (USDA, Economic Research Service, 5/18/2017).
While food deserts represent localized problems, overall food insecurity as measured by families seeking food assistance through the SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program), and those enrolled for free/reduced lunch in the school system reflect much larger numbers. My colleague John Berry wrote about recent legislation to restrict access to SNAP last week, and I encourage you to see the scope of that in his report.
Awareness of the choices facing families who may be weighing other expenses against buying healthy food is also an important consideration. SNAP is only one resource, and families must meet low-income requirements to qualify. These families typically fall in the “very low income” range of the area median income of our metro area. On average, according to a November 2018 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 82% of this same group is labeled as cost burdened for rent as a percentage of income, indicating that they face tough choices each month. If we begin to connect a few dots to frame the discussion:
- 500,000+ people are living in food desert areas in the metro area;
- 28% are children who may only receive one full meal a day at school;
- 1 out of 2 families experiencing poverty, live more than a mile from fresh food;
- 8 out of 10 of these same families often must choose rent over healthy food.
The problem is large, the causes are complex, but the solutions do not have to be as challenging. We will explore just a few of these solutions in the coming weeks. In the meantime, think about what you can do to help your neighbors facing this difficult situation. Offer to lead a food drive at work or your place of worship, and find somewhere close to home where you can volunteer with an organization working to end hunger. The solution begins with each of us!