Despite the lushness of the landscape, there is a desert in Newton County—a food desert.
Defined as low access and low income areas by the USDA [http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx], food deserts offer little or no access to fresh, healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk.
In Newton County, that food desert lies primarily in the center of the county and runs from Georgia SR 36 west to Fairview and Jack Neely roads, north into Oxford and south to Georgia 212.
“The people who are most effected about it are straight down Highway 36, which follows the poverty line in Newton County, just north into Oxford” said Laura Bertram, Executive Director of the Newton County Partnership-Georgia Family Connection. “It encompasses an area of low-income and government-sponsored housing.”
Bertram said many residents in the designated area have limited access to public transportation and full-service grocery stores. Many residents shop at convenience stores, buying chips, soft drinks and high-salt, high-sugar content foods.
A diet high in salt, fat and sugar often leads to childhood obesity and other health issues.
“Childhood diabetes is a big problem in Georgia,” Bertram said. “Our child poverty trend is going. Our child poverty level in Newton County was 19.9 percent in 2009. In 2013, it was 20 to 24 percent of the population.”
In its 2013 Community Health Assessment [http://www.newtonmedical.com/pdf/Newton%20Final%20Report2013.pdf], Newton County Medical Center published a report that identified two U.S. census tract in the central part of the county areas as food deserts. The number of people in the two areas, according to the 2000 census and a 2006 grocery store survey, was 8,487. Between 41.1 and 54.7 percent of the population had low access to fresh foods.
Children with limited access to food can develop health and behavioral anxiety, such as hoarding or being afraid to eat. Those problems are exacerbated in food deserts, Bertram said, because many of the children are left inside all day and get little or no physical activity.
The distance to access health foods affects poor and working class people and those without access to transportation, said Dr. Deric Shannon, professor of the Sociology of Food and Ecology at Oxford College at Emory University. A food desert “assumes a certain level of poverty. It’s easier to get fast foods or convenience foods than it is to go to grocery stores.”
For those living in poverty who do have access to full-service grocery stores, affordability becomes the problem.
“Affordable access effects people by class,” Shannon said.
But it’s not just access and affordability that creates dietary and health problems. It’s the culture of taste and experience.
Taking a “bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables” into poor areas in the South doesn’t solve the problem, Shannon said.
“We have to cultivate different tastes. Part of what needs to happen is access, but we also need to have a public conversation about what’s good for us, what’s good for our children, and how we can make fresh fruits and vegetables not only available but desirable.
“And there are no easy solutions,” he said.
“If you don’t infuse the culture ... with an idea that they want to eat the food provided to them for free, then they won’t eat it or they’ll still go eat the chips,” agreed Betram. “This is what the partnership does that is critical: we want to build relationships with people living in the food desert and help them become invested in choosing healthy foods. We want them to want to seek out healthy foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, water and milk, more time playing outside and less in front of the TV.
“There are ways to learn how to eat healthy food cheaply,” she said.
Convincing those living in poverty, especially those who live in generational poverty, that healthy foods are good tasting requires exposure and education. The University of Georgia Extension offers a course in healthy eating, and participants are invited to try foods they may have never tasted.
The course, taught by Molly Kimler of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) Assistance, University of Georgia Extension, is eight sessions covering topics such as food safety, making eating out healthier, shopping, the correlation between salt use and blood pressure, and eating more fruits and vegetables.
Kimler said they bring the course to the community, usually at the invitation of an agency or nonprofit organization. “It’s a conversational-based course where participants can ask questions,” she said. Clients receive a cooking-related gift, such as a measuring spoon or measuring cup, at the end of each session. When the course is complete, the receive a certificate and a cookbook with health recipes.
“A lot of clients who go to food banks get shelf to table foods, like canned chicken or tuna, or green beans,” Kimler said. “We try to explain that the food is full of salt. They can rinse the can of green beans and cut the sodium in half.
“We actually make something for them to eat,” she said. For example, “a lot of clients haven’t eaten yogurt and we have a ranch yogurt dressing we make. They don’t want to try it, but they will and they love it. They come back and say, ‘my child loved it’.”
Class participants are shown ways to use the food often given out by food banks, such as ramen noodles, substituting canned vegetables, Italian seasoning and ground turkey for the salty flavor packet.
Agencies and nonprofits can contact Molly at email@example.com to set up the health eating course for groups.
Newton County Partnership is one of the agencies working in the county to address the growing problem of food insecurity. “Our job,” Bertram said, “is to unite diverse groups in order to address the problem. We gather the data to show what our children are at risk for, then we gather the groups from community to help address it.”
Identifying community leaders in affected neighborhoods is one of the tasks the partnership is working on. Bertram said in focus groups she held throughout Georgia in 2001, she learned that most people want more for their children then they had themselves.
The difference between those living in poverty and those in the middle class is, Bertram said, is “we know how to find the resources to get that [better lives for children] or we know how to access the resources. [Those living in poverty] don’t even know what to ask for. Once they are given that knowledge, through ongoing workshops and neighborhood meetings, they are empowered.
”It changes the conversation,” she said. “I believe we have to be intentional in this community. We cannot bring in new people, new businesses unless we lift the culture of Newton County.
“That’s going to take educating and empowering people,” she said. “You have to give them a voice.”
Organic and community gardens can help bring fresh vegetables to low-income residents. In Monroe County, Kimler said, the farmer’s markets now accept SNAP cards. “It opens on Saturday and they can get twice as much food for their dollar.”
Newton County is served by the Atlanta Community Food Bank, part of the Feeding America network. Food pantries and children lunch programs are also available through many local churches and nonprofit organizations.
For further information about the food desert in Newton County, visit http://www.newtonpartnership-gafcp.org/hunger-obesity-in-food-desert/ and http://ga.nokidhungry.org/. To learn more about food insecurity, visit Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org). A director of local food pantries and services is available at http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/cgi-bin/id/cityfoodbanks.cgi?city=Covington&state=GA, or check with the school district, local church and nonprofit organization programs.