For most of us, hunger can be solved by a trip to the kitchen. Mealtimes often revolve around planned ingredients, thoughtfully purchased during weekly grocery runs, or include impromptu restaurant visits. But for many Atlantans, food is an expense that has to take a backseat to more pressing needs. For these individuals and families, there isn’t regular access to adequate or affordable food—it’s a chronic problem known as food insecurity.
“A household is food insecure when they’re unsure about where their next meal is coming from,” said Jon West, VP of Programs at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “This may be due to a lack of resources—money, a place to buy food or transportation to get there.”
Of course, it’s not just about quantity of food. Quality is a big issue, too.
“Some things you can’t make tradeoffs on,” said West. “You have to pay your rent, your utilities and your car payment.” But residents can skimp on their quality of food to save money, forcing them into unhealthy choices that are filling but lack nutrition.
The scale of the problem
The Food Bank is a vast, centralized food distribution hub that serves 29 counties in northwest Georgia,1 including those in the metro Atlanta area. “We have one of the largest populations of food insecure people in the country,” said West. “We serve about 820,000 individuals across our service area—that’s 14 percent of the population. What’s more, about 20 percent of kids in the area are food insecure.”2
To address a need of that proportion, the Food Bank works with hundreds of nonprofit partners like childcare facilities, community kitchens, shelters and senior centers. These partner agencies receive food in bulk from the Food Bank and, in turn, provide that food to the families and individuals they serve. Agencies place their food orders online, then arrange for pickup or delivery.
The Food Bank is funded by individual donors, foundations, corporations, faith-based organizations, associations and government. Last year alone, the Food Bank provided 70 million pounds of food, including 15.5 million pounds of fresh produce, for food insecure people in northwest Georgia. Providing that much food is no small undertaking. The Food Bank relies on hundreds of volunteers and 150 regular staff, operates a fleet of trucks and operates a 129,000-square-foot facility that they’re looking to expand.
What are the causes?
While the number of people experiencing food insecurity—including those in suburban areas—has declined slowly since the big financial recession of the 2000s, the numbers aren’t improving as much as we might hope. “And the percentage of Atlanta residents in that predicament is consistently higher than the national average,” said West. According to the USDA, in 2017, 11.8% of households nationally were food insecure, and for Georgia, from 2015 to 2017, that average number was 13%.3 In the 2018 “Metro Atlanta Speaks” survey done on behalf of the Atlanta Regional Commission, 16.6% of respondents said they had cut the size of meals in the last 12 months because of a lack of money for food.4 What’s behind the high numbers of food insecure households in metro Atlanta?
“Often, there’s a tipping event that puts people in a spiral of financial crisis,” said West. “Take, for example, the recent shutdown of the federal government. This kind of thing—a layoff, a serious illness, even an unexpected car repair—can force people to make tradeoffs.” Set-backs like these can be hard to overcome without assistance, and healthy food is often the first casualty. Sometimes the need is only for a season, until financial recovery can occur, but for others, the lack of resources is a year-round struggle.
A holistic approach to limited resources
The Food Bank not only provides food, but also essentials like paper products and toiletries—items which cannot be purchased with SNAP (food stamp) benefits. When households face emergency situations and cannot cover payments for things like rent, heat, medical bills or car repairs, some of the Food Bank’s partner agencies are able to offer assistance, usually on a limited basis.
“If someone has a short-term medicine cost that is creating difficulty, we may be able to help with refilling a prescription or directing that person to an agency that can,” said Major Kelly English of the Salvation Army’s Peach Crest Corps in Decatur. “So, if food money is being spent to cover medicine, now that money can be used again for food.”
The Peach Crest Corps also offers financial planning to help clients get better at managing the resources they have.
“The biggest notation [on how to address food insecurity] would be affordable housing,” said Major English. “I see Atlanta as being progressive and fast-growing. That of course brings more people with hopes of making their own cultural contributions. The result of such movement, however, is housing shortages that drive up prices for purchase as well as rental,” she said.
Innovative solutions need support
Metro Atlanta’s rapid growth impacts those who struggle with food insecurity. Metro Atlanta has 300 community gardens and over 50 urban farms which increase food access to neighborhoods that address food insecurity. “Our work at Food Well Alliance focuses on helping urban farms and community gardens support healthier communities in metro Atlanta,” said Will Sellers, Deputy Director of Food Well Alliance, a nonprofit that got its roots as an affiliate of the Food Bank in 2015.
In 2017, Food Well Alliance published Atlanta’s Local Food Baseline Report which highlighted how neighborhoods and community organizations work with locally grown food to address food insecurity, promote environmental stewardship and increase health and nutrition outcomes.
The report highlighted data showing that:
Food Well Alliance identified three ways community partners, policy makers, urban farmers and community gardens can help with food insecurity:
“All stakeholders have a role to play in addressing food insecurity, and locally grown food is a healthier, innovative way to respond to this challenge,” said Sellers.
Will Sellers and Amy Hudson of Food Well Alliance contributed to this story.