Hunger in Athens — what’s causing it?

Food insecurity rose sharply worldwide during the pandemic, but over 16% of Athenians were at risk of going hungry even before 2020. Why are so many people food insecure here, and what are we doing to get food to people who need it?

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There is a lot of visual information presented in the video that’s not included in the transcript below, so we recommend watching instead of reading. But, we’ve got the transcript if you prefer to read, as well:

Economists were predicting economic trouble in 2020 even before COVID struck, and then, almost overnight, 25 million Americans were suddenly without work. This overwhelmed unemployment insurance systems across the country, causing widespread misery and increasing insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most significant events of the 21st century and will surely have a lasting impact on our society and the entire world.

While Americans also saw enormous job losses in the Great Recession of 2008 – the worst economic downturn since 1929 – 2008 simply can’t compare with the incredible speed and devastation of the 2020 recession. Many businesses in Athens did not survive or are still struggling despite unprecedented relief efforts by the federal government.

The effect on the working class and poor people in Athens has been even greater. And this crisis is not yet over – many people here are at risk of hunger or of being evicted from their homes, which was even true before the pandemic, but now, the risk has become a true crisis.

This is the first of a set of videos where APN will examine both food and housing insecurity in Athens – what it is, how it affects people and what we’re doing to try to stop it. Let’s start by looking at access to food.

What is food security?

Food security is defined by the USDA on a sliding scale. On the secure end, we’ve got people who either have no problems accessing food, or who worry about potentially going hungry, but who haven’t actually suffered insecurity yet. On the other end of the scale, we find people who are often forced to eat low-quality food just to avoid hunger, and on the very bottom, people are actually going hungry – at times, they have nothing to eat at all.

According to the United Nations, chronic hunger is on the rise worldwide – it’s up by 10 million people in 2019 and by 60 million from 2014 to 2019. 690 million people went hungry during that year, with the total number of food insecure people approaching two billion, before the pandemic.

Here in the US, 11.1% of people experienced food insecurity to some degree in 2018, with 4.3% actually going hungry. In Athens, it’s even worse, with 16.3% of people having experienced food insecurity in that year.

The need for food assistance has increased sharply everywhere after COVID-19. In the US, we’ve been fortunate to have help from the federal government through the CARES Act relief bill which was passed by Congress in March of 2020.

Athens received $6.6 million in general CARES Act funding last year. This money was either granted to struggling businesses or split up among various government departments and local nonprofits.

$1.8 million was given to these nonprofits for financial, housing and food assistance, with the biggest amount going to the Athens Community Council on Aging to start the Athens Eats Together program. While many different groups are doing great work getting food to Athenians who need it, the rest of this video will focus on Athens Eats Together, which was recently extended even as it’s been criticized by some ACC commissioners. So what is this program, and what are the issues some have with it? Let’s take a look.

Athens Eats Together

Eve Anthony, CEO of the Athens Community Council on Aging: “To date, we have provided emergency food relief to 8,100 residents in Athens-Clarke County, 2,600 people per week. We have provided over 250,000 meals. The Athens Eats Together project started with our mayor and commissioners who wanted to address the need for emergency food relief caused by COVID.”

“And the reason that Athens-Clarke County worked with us is because we have the meals on wheels infrastructure in place, we’ve been doing meals on wheels since 1972. We also have a lot of existing partnerships, with the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, the Farmer’s Market, some of the other groups that we knew we needed to work with.”

I decided to check out the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, which is the agency that provided all of the food distributed by ACCA for Athens Eats Together.

Sherry Anderson, Associate Director of the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia: “So, last year we distributed 13.5 million pounds of food. That was a record for us, and of course that was directly tied to the pandemic.”

APN: “What would like a normal year be?”

Sherry Anderson: “So, in a normal year would be 10.5 million? Maybe up to 11. So you can see that was a pretty big change.”

Thirteen and a half million pounds is a lot of food, but unfortunately, it’s not enough to meet the demand across all fourteen counties served by the food bank.

Sherry Anderson: “Feeding America estimates that we’d have to be moving around 18 million pounds a year to basically service everybody that needs to be serviced.”

APN: “Why are so many people hungry and what can we do about it?”

Sherry Anderson: “That’s a tough question. It’s a great question, but it’s a tough one. One thing that we see is that this community, I mean, if you’re looking at other counties in Georgia, we do, we have a very high poverty rate. A lot of the jobs here don’t pay great sums of money. I know the minimum wage is a very controversial topic right now, but trying to survive and feed a family if you’re making minimum wage is just about impossible. We know things like health insurance is going up. It’s just expensive to live.”

When I first started working on this video, I thought I would focus on hunger caused by unemployment during the pandemic. But it turns out most food insecurity is actually caused by us and our policy choices, not the virus.

Eve Anthony: “When we asked the enrollees what their need is and why they need food, most of them are saying it’s because of low wages. It’s either unemployment or low wages with the majority saying low wages. Typically when people have to choose, the last thing they choose is the food. The food is not a fixed cost like your mortgage and your car payment and some of those other things. So, you can skimp on food when you need to.”

“About 70% of the folks receiving the food, it was the first time they’ve received food assistance. You know, part of that is because of COVID, and then another part is because the program was designed in such a way that it was accessible for everyone. Our food is distributed in several different ways. We do traditional food distributions where people drive up and we put food in the back of their car. And then we also partner with the Clarke County School District. And then I think where we’re meeting the biggest need or the largest need is 52% of the people on Athens Eats Together are having their meals delivered directly to their home. And that’s huge! Folks who can’t get to traditional food distributions, their needs are not being met. And so this delivery option is meeting that need.”

Athens Eats Together appears to be an excellent program doing necessary work that probably no other group in Athens had the capacity for. But when the program came up for renewal in March, the commission vote was surprisingly contentious, with two commissioners actually voting no. Two other commissioners, while they eventually voted yes, were working furiously behind the scenes in an attempt to defund Athens Eats almost completely. Why? What problems did they have with it? Well, let me expl…

I’m so sorry, I can’t deliver on that. If I did, it would take us beyond the scope of this video. We’d have to examine the bitterness and in-fighting that’s been plaguing the commission in recent months.

Commissioner Mike Hamby: “What I’m going to do now, is going to make some folks uncomfortable.”

Commissioner Ovita Thornton: “There’s been some breach in relationships on this commission.”

Commissioner Mariah Parker: “I don’t know if you’ve been made aware, like, you see what happens at the meetings, but if you’re not aware of the way that some commissioners are harassed via text message or on the phone…”

Commissioner Jesse Houle: “The same people who are now pushing through the substitute motion are using language, are using important language about the need in the community, are using the good names of these organizations to pit them against each other and to pit us against each other. I mean, I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous.”

When food relief for hungry people has become a political football, you know there’s a problem.

Back to the topic of food insecurity, I have to say that I don’t understand why so many people are hungry in my hometown. It’s not lack of food. The USDA estimates that between 30% and 40% of America’s food is wasted every year. Just thrown out. Sadly, the truth is that hunger is a policy choice. The federal government could more or less eliminate food insecurity entirely, if that was their goal. Instead, many state legislatures including our own here in Georgia, have been moving in the opposite direction, using things like work requirements as a way of denying people aid.

In my view, the real strength of the Athens Eats Together program is that anyone who wanted food, got it – in many cases delivered straight to their door. I’d love to see programs like this made permanent – publicly-funded and run by non-profits, a diverse group of nonprofits, who really know their community and how best to serve them.

I’ll keep dreaming of a better world, but in the next video in this series, we’ll take a look at another crisis plaguing Athens, which is the crisis of housing insecurity and evictions. Thanks for watching.

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