COLUMBUS, GA (AP) – Local leaders and organizations are finding creative solutions to make food available in the Chattahuchi Valley, where more than half of Columbus residents live in the food desert.
The food desert is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as densely populated low-income areas that do not have easy access to grocery stores or supermarkets. People living in food deserts have a higher risk of health problems, as many turn to processed, high-calorie foods instead of fresh foods.
To combat food deserts, people in Columbus plan to locate mobile food markets in new areas of the city, expanding mobile food pantries and teaching people to cook with simple ingredients.
In Muscovy County, 111,790 people lived in the food desert, according to an estimate of public health needs in 2019 from the Piedmont Columbus Regional. In his latest published report, he is helping officials identify top health priorities until 2022.
“(Some residents) don’t have anything about a few miles from their home to get to the food source,” Valley Feeding Director Frank Sheppard said.
Dozens of nonprofits across Columbus are working together to fight food security, but the challenge is complex, said The Food Mill director Olivia Amos. Food Mill is a non-profit organization that uses fresh produce to prepare healthy meals that it delivers to help combat food insecurity in the North Highlands community.
“There’s really no one area you can approach, have a program and think it will change everything in the long run,” she said. “You really have to address all the different layers of food security. And access is a big part of it. “
Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson has announced a new fleet of mobile vehicles purchased by the city, offering pop-up clinics, farmers markets and entertainment activities in underserved areas of the city.
The Health and Wellness Initiative, announced Jan. 21, Henderson said the program could begin as early as late March. The neighborhoods served by the program may include Wilson Apartments, EJ Knight Apartments, Warren Williams Homes and Nicholson Terrace.
“We just want to go out there, throw a few barricades in the street and set up shop,” Henderson said.
“PUT THEM BACK”
About 21% of Muscovy County residents reported food insecurity, and 12% said they had limited access to healthy food, according to a 2019 community health assessment conducted by the West District Central Health Center. Nationwide rates were 16% and 9% respectively.
According to Sheppard, food security deteriorated when the COVID-19 pandemic began. In late 2020, the food bank’s demand for services increased by 53%, he said, and about 40% of people who come for food were individuals whom the food bank had never helped before.
“People who have been laid off or laid off long enough in a difficult economy have had trouble finding another job and feeding their families,” Sheppard said.
Demand for feeding the valley leveled 35% higher than before the pandemic, he said. In response, they expanded programs such as mobile food pantries, increasing the number of distribution sites from 48 to 53.
“Some of these sites usually distribute food once a month, and now they do it twice a month or once a week,” he said.
The Food Bank is working with Enrichment Services and Columbus State University to identify densely populated areas of people without food security to make sure food is going to areas in high demand.
J. Mac Muhammad is a disabled veteran who regularly receives food from a pantry maintained by Feeding the Valley in Harris County. Mohammed said the site in Moltry Park greatly helped his community during the economic downturn.
He has five children with him, whom he has to provide for, and his disability does not allow him to work.
“We can’t go to the grocery store because we have no income,” Muhammad said. “And the coronavirus makes it even harder. The help that these pantries give to people and society is a blessing. “
Placing grocery stores in these areas is not easy, Amos said. According to her, many families living in food deserts have a fixed income, and most of them receive benefits under the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The pandemic has made existing food deserts denser, said Robert Scott, director of the Community Reinvestment Department, as many people affected by the job loss struggled to their feet.
“Usually, when you have significant periods of income loss that push people back,” he said. “Some people fall off the edge, and some people barely hold on to the force of their nails.”
“MORE diabetes and more obesity”
There is a correlation between living in an area with high food security and high levels of obesity, Sheppard says. “They’re going to get food, but it probably won’t be the food that will be very useful to them.”
Columbus has higher rates of diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer than other metropolitan areas, it was also announced during a news conference.
Dr. Stephen Leichter and Phil Schuler will co-chair the mayor’s health commission and have been working on the initiative for two years.
Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of death for people over the age of 35 in Muscovy County, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Avoiding high-fat foods in the food desert is difficult because people in those areas don’t have access to healthy food, Schuler said. He said they have access to gas stations or shops where they can get chips and junk food, but no healthier food that provides a better diet.
“There you have more diabetes and more obesity,” Schuler said. “In particular, in the same areas where there is also a higher level of sedentary lifestyle.”
“I DIDN’T SEE THIS SIDE”
Lack of transportation is another barrier to ensuring people have access to healthy food, Sheppard said. He said some people in the food deserts will not have the financial resources to deliver them to the store by taxi or travel service.
“They won’t necessarily have a working car,” Sheppard said. “And there is the issue of public transport. There may not be a complete bus line going from their place of residence to the food source. ”
Kim Hill, a Focus Ministries volunteer, was one of the first in line at a food pantry in Harris County. She helps pick up food from the pantry to deliver it to six people who came home.
“They were stuck at home,” Hill said. “They can’t get anywhere and they’re not near the food.”
Many of the people she helps are physically unable to go for food and often do not have a permanent support system, Hill said. The work she does with Focus ensures that they are constantly getting the food she delivers.
When people have fresh food, it’s important that they know how to use it, Amos and Schuler said. One of the goals of the mobile food market is also to teach people to cook according to simple recipes, Schuler said.
Addressing food security means affecting every stratum, Amos said, and interacting with the community to change behavior.
“It’s a process that will take years to change,” Amos said. “We need to make sure that our programs that we create and that we offer communities are what they are looking for.”