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 Coordinator 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 who have limited access to grocery stores and low incomes, 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 filling out 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 little 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 afterwards, 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 is able to see the problem from a global perspective. “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 firstname.lastname@example.org.