Healthy local food choices for Atlantans

Moderated by Rick Badie

AJC features writer Gracie Bond Staples recently wrote a special report on “food deserts” and how lack of neighborhood access to fresh, healthy food leads to chronic illnesses. Today, we highlight two programs working to curb the number of Georgians with limited means to healthy products. The third column, unrelated, deals with the opening of a diverging diamond interchange in Gwinnett County — metro Atlanta’s third such traffic mover.

Healthy food for all

By Sara Berney

 Across our state, low-income families and individuals find it difficult to access food, let alone fresh, nutritious food. Reliance on cheap, unhealthy food contributes to a serious health issue for Georgia, where 30 percent of adults and 35 percent of children are obese.

In Georgia, almost 2 million people receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) benefits. The high cost and low accessibility of fresh food, compared to the relative low cost and high availability of processed foods, leaves them with limited options to feed their families.

Wholesome Wave Georgia believes all Georgians should have access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food. We focus our efforts on those Georgians, considered food-insecure, through a Double Value Coupon Program. It encourages people to rethink the accessibility and affordability of fresh, wholesome foods.

The coupon program makes it possible to double every SNAP dollar from $1 to $2 at nearly 40 partner farmers markets in Georgia, increasing the consumption of fresh, healthy, locally produced food by SNAP recipients. This means more money for farmers, and more healthy food for underserved, low-income Georgia communities where such food is often sparse, expensive and low-quality.

Since 2009, Wholesome Wave has grown from three partner farmers markets to a network of nearly 40. Operating the coupon program in 25 cities throughout the state, we are a true statewide network that stretches from metro Atlanta to Valdosta, from Pine Mountain to Savannah.

On Feb. 27, we hosted our first SNAP merchant sign-up day for Georgia farmers markets and farmers. We partnered with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, MarketLinkTM (a program of the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs), and the Atlanta Community Food Bank to assist interested farmers markets and farmers in becoming authorized to accept SNAP. During the sign-up, 12 farmers markets and 23 farmers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits, bringing the total number of authorized farmers markets and farmers in Georgia to 110, a 47-percent increase.

Through the success of the SNAP authorization event, we are beginning to envision a Georgia where all farmers markets not only accept, but double SNAP dollars as partners of our coupon program. We envision a Georgia where all individuals have the opportunity to support local farmers and strengthen their local food economies. We have an incredible opportunity to connect SNAP recipients with farmers markets and healthy eating habits, and make healthy, fresh, locally sourced food accessible to all no matter their location in the state.

Since initiation of the coupon program in 2009, Wholesome Wave has distributed more than $547,000 in healthy food incentives to Georgia SNAP recipients. This represents more than $1 million dollars in healthy, locally grown food to SNAP recipients and income for the state’s farmers.

Unfortunately, only 23 percent of Georgia’s 141 farmers markets are authorized to accept SNAP. What if all 141 participated? This would expand the customer base and increase the local share of SNAP dollars put back into the community.

For more information about our programs to help food-insecure Georgians, visit us at: www.wholesomewavegeorgia.org/

Sara Berney is executive director of Wholesome Wave Georgia.

Eating well on the Boulevard

By Sara Thorpe

The Boulevard Food Co-Op, an outreach of the Truly Living Well Center for Urban Agriculture and Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall’s Yo! Boulevard initiative, is changing the food landscape for low-income residents in Bedford Pines and Cosby Spear.

The co-op brings new life to those trying to replace cheap fast food with healthy, affordable, local food options. It shows the power of community action and leadership in creating local solutions to local challenges.

The co-op emerged from the voices of the community to address the paralyzing impact of food insecurity. Food insecurity exists whenever nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially appropriate ways, is limited or uncertain.

Through community meetings, residents shared concerns about the lack of access to fresh, affordable produce, as well as how this impacted their diet-related illnesses. These residents decided to take action because they had had enough of the drive-throughs and corner stores clustered in their neighborhood.

How can you get involved?

On March 28, healthy food advocates will join the Boulevard Food Co-Op at Truly Living Well’s Wheat Street Garden for the Food Access for All 5K Fun Run and Walk. The event will follow a course from the Wheat Street Garden, along Boulevard, to Whole Foods Market, and then return to the garden. At Whole Foods, participants will collect a 10-pound bag of groceries (equivalent to three days of groceries). The Atlanta Community Food Bank will collect this food to distribute to agencies in the Old Fourth Ward.

Eating healthy is crucial to living a healthy, productive life. It is a key factor in reducing diet-related disease. Yet 25 million to 30 million Americans live in communities that do not have adequate food access. Individuals who live in neighborhoods characterized by environmental factors — such as a lack of efficient transportation — that hinder access to healthy and reliable food sources are at risk of higher rates of chronic disease.

In low-income areas, inequalities exist in the quality, variety, quantity, and price of healthy foods. This often results in the consumption of high-caloric, low-nutrient foods. Poverty is already a crippling cycle. These barriers make it challenging for low-income individuals to eat and live well.

As advocates, we witness this interplay between health and access, and the real consequences that has on the lives of our neighbors. Many people are aware of how  poor diet impairs their health and sincerely desire to improve the way they eat, but are unable to because of obstacles obtaining affordable, healthy food.

Ignoring this relationship is no longer an option. Food insecurity is a threat to public health and a symptom of poverty. It requires innovative solutions that empower and engage those at risk.

Healthy food is a right. Yet for many in the United States, it is a privilege. The multi-level partnerships involving AmeriCorps VISTA, Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture and Yo! Boulevard challenges this paradigm.

According to one of the founding co-op members, “This membership provides us an opportunity to eat affordably, because the healthy foods at the grocery stores around here are too expensive. This gives us an opportunity to truly live well.”

Join us in taking a stand against Atlanta’s limited access to healthy foods. Support Boulevard Food Co-Op’s efforts by registering for the Food Access for All 5K Fun Run and Walk at: https://foodaccessforall5krun.eventbrite.com.

Sara Thorpe is organizer of the Boulevard Food Co-Op.

Changing lanes, changing Gwinnett

By Chuck Warbington

On Friday, construction crews plan to close the interchange at Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 for a “weekend of transformation” in southwest Gwinnett County. The closure, weather permitting, is one of the final steps reconfiguring the traffic pattern for Georgia’s third diverging-diamond interchange .

This historic event for the Norcross-area community has been a long-needed improvement to Jimmy Carter Boulevard, consistently ranked as one of metro Atlanta’s most congested interchanges. The bridge will close to through traffic at 9 p.m Friday, and will reopen with the new traffic configuration at 5 a.m. Monday. Should inclement weather impede construction, an alternate date is scheduled for March 27-30. It is important to note that construction will continue around the interchange through the summer.

At the two previously completed diverging-diamond interchanges in Georgia — Ashford-Dunwoody Road at I-285, and Pleasant Hill Road at I-85 — traffic reduction was felt immediately. Following the completion of the Pleasant Hill interchange,  traffic analysis indicated a 51-percent decrease in the number of stops and a 43-percent decrease in total delay.

The Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District expects to see similar positive results at the Jimmy Carter interchange, but the overall project is more than just a congestion-relief project. To symbolize the transformation of  southwest Gwinnett, the district has coupled this road work with an architectural component, a “gateway,” into the county for hundreds of thousands of motorist who pass underneath it each day.

The angular design is inspired by a little-known fact: The Eastern Continental Divide runs across this bridge and is one of the highest points in Gwinnett County, with great views of downtown Atlanta and Stone Mountain.

The diverging diamond at Jimmy Carter and I-85 is also a great example why community improvement districts are successful, strong partnerships. This project is funded by private funds from district businesses and by the Gwinnett County SPLOST and the State Road and Tollway Authority .

Bringing multiple partners from the private and public sector together with a common goal is what makes the community improvement district model effective. This project is just a snapshot of those partnerships in action. It will be the model for a future that facilitates shared responsibility and pushes transportation enhancements forward on a larger scale in the metro region.

Chuck Warbington is executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.

 


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