Hun­gry in New­ton

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - SAN­DRA BRANDS sbrands@cov­news.com

Ox­ford hosts dis­cus­sion on New­ton County’s food desert

There is a large food desert in New­ton County.

It en­com­passes the area bordered by State Route 36 west to Fairview and Jack Neely, north into Ox­ford and south to State Route 212. Though there are four gro­cery stores in the area, there is a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of low in­come res­i­dents who do not have a car, can­not af­ford to buy healthy food or a com­bi­na­tion of both.

The re­sult­ing sta­tis­tics are stag­ger­ing.

Nearly one quar­ter of New­ton County’s chil­dren live in poverty. Seventy per­cent of its stu­dents re­ceive free or re­duced lunches. At least 100 house­holds have no ac­cess to trans­porta­tion and live a half a mile or fur­ther from a gro­cery store.

As a re­sult, much of the fam­ily gro­cery money is spent at con­ve­nience stores and gas sta­tions, shops not known for stock­ing large selections of fresh and healthy foods, or at one of the 40 fast food restau­rants in New­ton County. The con­se­quences of eat­ing poorly can re­sult in di­a­betes, obe­sity, high blood pres­sure and sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to dis­eases.

It’s not just phys­i­cal health that suf­fers. Men­tally, liv­ing with the in­se­cu­rity about food and know­ing how poor nu­tri­tion is af­fect­ing the health of their fam­i­lies can be drain­ing.

Build­ing a coali­tion

To ad­dress the is­sue and look for so­lu­tions, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from a dozen agen­cies and or­ga­ni­za­tions al­ready en­gaged in al­le­vi­at­ing hunger in the county met at Ox­ford Col­lege at Emory Univer­sity on Wed­nes­day to look for ways to best meet the needs of their clients. The event was co­or­di­nated by Kin­sey McMurtry, Health Pro­mo­tion Co­or­dina- tor for the Gwin­nett, New­ton and Rock­dale County Health De­part­ments.

On hand were rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Cov­ing­ton Hous­ing Au­thor­ity, New­ton County Com­mu­nity Partnership, New­ton County School Sys­tem, Ac­tion Min­istries and Wash­ing­ton Street Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. Join­ing them were farm­ers from the Ox­ford Col­lege or­ganic farm and Mitcham Farms, Ge­or­gia Or­gan­ics and the New­ton County Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia Athens Ex­ten­sion Of­fice.

The three main is­sues iden­ti­fied, McMurtry said, were the avail­abil­ity of food, the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of fresh food and cost. “Get­ting food to peo­ple is as im­por­tant as get­ting peo­ple to food,” she said.

Ac­cord­ing to the pre­sen­ta­tion she made, re­sources in the county in­clude 11 food pantries, two com­mu­nity gar­dens, one in Por­terdale and one at Wash­ing­ton Street Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, and a hand­ful of Com­mu­nity Sup­ported Agri­cul­tural (CSA) pro­grams. While there are stalls set up at Ox­ford Col­lege for a farmer’s mar­ket, cur­rently there are no ac­tive farmer’s mar­kets in the county.

The group was asked to iden­tify and pri­or­i­tize the needs of chil­dren and adults with low in­comes who have lim­ited ac­cess to gro­cery stores, share in­for­ma­tion on re­sources al­ready avail­able and those that could be ac­cessed, and to look at the strengths and weak­nesses unique to New­ton County that can help al­le­vi­ate hunger.

“The groups have a stake in the com­mu­ni­ties at risk,” said Jes­sica L. An­der­son, Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Of­fi­cer and Health Pro­mo­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Man­ager with the Gwin­nett, New­ton and Rock­dale County Health De­part­ments. “They are com­mu­nity part­ners who could help iden­tify re­sources to ad­dress food in­se­cu­ri­ties and al­le­vi­ate the bar­ri­ers for our com­mu­nity mem­bers.”

Some pro­grams that have worked in other ar­eas in­clude of­fer­ing in­cen­tives to start new gro­cery busi­nesses in the area iden­ti­fied as a food desert, pro­vid­ing trans­porta­tion to gro­cery stores for low in­come fam­i­lies, school based nu­tri­tion and cook­ing ed­u­ca­tion, mo­bile farmer’s mar­kets and glean­ing, which is when farm­ers al­low vol­un­teers to har­vest crops left af­ter the main har­vest.

Laura Ber­tram, di­rec­tor of the New­ton County Com­mu­nity Partnership, said the county had started the pa­per­work for a trans­porta­tion grant in 2007, but the grant re­quest had not been sub­mit­ted. The pa­per­work could be used to restart the grant re­quest process, she said.

“It’s a start,” she told the group. “It’s more than we have now.”

Learn­ing from other com­mu­ni­ties

Frances Ap­pen­teng, an Ox­ford stu­dent do­ing an in­tern­ship with the health depart­ment un­der the aus­pices of the col­lege’s so­ci­ol­ogy depart­ment, has been study­ing com­mu­ni­ties sim­i­lar to Cov­ing­ton and Ox­ford, to see what pro­grams they’ve ini­ti­ated to com­bat food ac­cess prob­lems.

“I’m look­ing at the key play­ers, which in­cludes farmer’s mar­kets, agri­cul­ture, food pantries, com­mu­nity gar­dens, ur­ban plan­ning, food ed­u­ca­tion and sus­tain­able ini­tia­tives,” she said.

“For ex­am­ple, [in New York] we have those lit­tle roof top gar­dens or rooftop green­houses,” she said. “Those ini­tia­tives are great for sus­tain­abil­ity.”

A na­tive of Ghana, Ap­pen­teng said her fam­ily moved to New York when she was 13. Five years later, they moved to Hous­ton, and shortly af- ter­wards, she en­tered Ox­ford Col­lege. She said she was sur­prised that there were peo­ple in the United States who lived in a food desert.

“In Ghana, we had the im­pres­sion that ev­ery­one in the United States had food, that it was a place of Utopia, that peo­ple had ac­cess to any­thing they wanted” she said. “Be­ing in New York and see­ing peo­ple who were home­less was very sur­pris­ing. My whole view of the world changed.”

She said she brings a global per­spec­tive to the prob­lem. “There’s some­thing about food that con­nects ev­ery­one. [Food in­se­cu­rity] is not just in the United States. It’s a prob­lem oc­cur­ring around the world.”

She hopes her re­search and how she gath­ered it will be use­ful to oth­ers in the fu­ture.

Wed­nes­day’s sum­mit was a first step to­wards build­ing a coali­tion of com­mu­nity part­ners, said An­der­son. “This is the first step in creat­ing com­mu­nity-driven, sus­tain­able ini­tia­tives that will im­prove food ac­cess through­out the county.

“By im­ple­ment­ing pol­icy, sys­tems and en­vi­ron­men­tal changes, we can make healthy food op­tions more ac­ces­si­ble to more peo­ple,” she said. “While cost [of food] is a pre­em­i­nent con­cern for many peo­ple, it is not the only bar­rier to a health­ier diet. There are also cul­tural and ge­o­graphic bar­ri­ers that must be ad­dressed.

“These sys­tem and com­mu­nity wide changes take time and a lot of car­ing, con­cerned part­ners to be suc­cess­ful,” she said. “We will con­tinue to ed­u­cate key stake­hold­ers on food se­cu­rity is­sues and so­licit com­mu­nity feed­back as we pre­pare to cre­ate ini­tia­tives that will in­crease food ac­cess for New­ton County cit­i­zens.”

For more in­for­ma­tion and re­sources about food ac­cess, visit the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) web site, or con­tact the New­ton County Health Depart­ment’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion of­fice by call­ing 770-339-4260 or email­ing jes­sica.an­der­son@gn­rhealth.com.

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