Addressing Food Insecurity in Athens

One in every five people in Athens-Clarke County is experiencing food insecurity.[1] In the past decade, many local Athens organizations and nonprofits have made individual efforts to reduce this problem. However, despite a common goal, no system has been able to unite these actors’ work. One solution to this problem is establishing a “Food Policy Council.” The council would increase partnerships between disparate local stakeholders in the ACC food sector and therefore, maximize ongoing efforts in combating food insecurity.

Fresh produce affordability is one primary cause of food insecurity. According to a 2013 Harvard study, diets of balanced nutrients cost almost $1.50 more per day than less healthy diets.[2] For low-income Athens residents, this creates a health disparity, defined by class and income brackets. Opting for cheaper, less healthy food sources increases the risk of diet-related illnesses like cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.[3] This issue is only exacerbated by the existence of food deserts–areas that lack access to affordable fresh produce, whole grains, and other foods that make up a healthy diet.[4] Census tracts are labeled as food deserts when over 30 percent of residents live more than 1 mile away from the nearest supermarket.[5] In the 2010 census, 11 out of Athens’ 30 census tracts were labeled as low-income food deserts.[6] According to the 2020 census, that number is now 13 out of 30 census tracts.[7]

Individual efforts led by various Athens nonprofits have attempted to aid the situation. Organizations like the Concrete Jungle have developed programs to distribute food to those in need.[8] Some nonprofits like Food2Kids are also refocusing their food distribution programs to include healthier food alternatives.[9] At UGA’s Office of Sustainability, past and ongoing initiatives include a 2018 partnership with the Athens Land Trust to create Market on the Move, a mobile market that addresses Athens’ food deserts.[10] Moreover, UGA’s recently established Foodshed Initiative supports research and outreach in food insecurity.[11] While these efforts are making an impact on the Athens community, they fundamentally remain independent of each other. Because many organizations are not coordinating efforts and sharing knowledge, they are not taking full advantage of potential community resources to combat this issue. Lack of partnership not only with each other, but also the ACC government, has limited public outreach, community engagement, and ultimately, maximization of programs.

The concept of a ‘Food Policy Council’ has existed for over thirty years, and over 100 such councils already exist across the nation.[12] Generally, these councils are similar in their objectives, ranging from reducing food insecurity to developing a sustainable local food system. The purpose of Food Policy Councils is to strengthen the coordination and relationships between local actors in the community’s food sector for the common goal of solving different food policy issues. The council would address gaps in community collaboration by implementing a forum purposed exclusively to converge and share different perspectives on matters related to food insecurity. Providing different experts in the local food sector a structure of consistent opportunities to work together will help facilitate a more thorough and cohesive process in examining potential solutions and policy proposals to reduce Athens’ major food policy issues.[13] One benefit of establishing a council in Athens includes connecting community leaders and research experts in food insecurity to government policymakers.[14] This connection will open an avenue where participants can both provide and benefit from multiple resources and support (social, economic, etc.) for policy implementation.[15] Also, the council will give the community an opportunity to directly engage and voice needs, concerns, and opinions.[16] With greater cooperation between different Athens establishments as well as the communities in need, the process of reducing major food policy issues will become more feasible and more effective.

Potential goals of the Athens Food Policy Council can be to develop a strategic plan to address food access issues in concurrence with cultivating partnerships between various private and public sectors of the food system.[17] Other goals could be to provide information and advice about various policies and programs that support community-based food systems as well as advocate for local policies that strengthen Athens’ local food security.[18]

While the majority of councils are independent or established by various non-profits, the ACC government should sanction the council through a resolution or implement it as a governmental sub-committee to secure the government’s involvement in leading such efforts.[19] Ultimately, through active collaboration led in part by government intervention will the fight against food insecurity have a bigger and more widespread impact in our community.