Efforts underway to turn Atlanta food deserts into oases

In the four years since he bought Super Giant Foods in southwest Atlanta, Sam Goswami has watched with interest the habits of his customers — what they purchased and what they shunned, whether they arrived after a long bus ride or were dropped off by a neighbor.

He lords over the check-out line from a vast second-floor office window where he can tell which of them is planning a birthday party, what’s on their holiday menus and whether they have enough money or SNAP food stamps to buy everything they put in their carts.

What he has learned, he said, has been both startling and inspiring.

Super Giant Foods is the only supermarket in a four-mile radius, and the majority of its customers are poor. Goswami noticed they typically bought high-fat dairy products, sugary drinks, processed foods and nary a fresh fruit or vegetable.

“As I talked to them, I discovered they lacked education, particularly about healthy foods,” Goswami said. But he also discovered they were eager to learn.

What he was witnessing was the effects of living in a food desert, a low-income community located more than one mile from a reliable source of fresh, healthy foods.

Nearly 2 million Georgia residents, including about 500,000 children, live in food deserts. The USDA has classified more than 35 food deserts inside the Perimeter. More border I-285 in the suburbs of Cobb, South Fulton and east DeKalb counties. Some experts say there is a correlation between food deserts and the state’s high rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancers. Stroke and heart disease are among the top three leading causes of death in Georgia, accounting for nearly one-third of all deaths in the state.

A former Holiday Inn Express owner who lived in Lawrenceville, Goswani purchased Super Giant Food in February 2003. At the time he knew nothing about the grocery business, but he considered himself the king of customer service. He was determined to parlay that skill into success at this 22,000-square-foot independent grocery store located in a neighborhood overrun with liquor stores, fast-food joints and check-cashing services.

Just six months in to his new business venture, Goswami began looking for ways to grow his bottom line and make a difference in the lives of his customers.

Noticing the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in his customers’ shopping carts, he increased the size of the produce section and started monthly cooking classes to show customers how to select and prepare healthy foods. Then he did something really radical. He partnered with Emory University’s Urban Health Initiative to create a community garden, possibly the first one ever located in a grocery store parking lot.

Volunteers in the community are taught how to grow and harvest the produce, which is then given away for free.

He envisions a time when Super Giant Food will be what he calls a “Healthy Hub,” complete with a teaching kitchen, meeting room, laundry and a satellite location of the Healing Community Center, a free clinic in southwest Atlanta that emphasizes preventive care and health education.

For now, Goswami hopes the garden will serve as an inspiration.

“If they learn it here, they can implement the same thing in their backyards,” Goswami said. “I’m looking at this on a larger scale. Maybe one day everybody will have a small plot in their backyard.”

Community gardens, markets

Goswami is just one among a growing army of people working to turn food deserts into food oases, and those helping grow the community garden movement are on the front lines.

Fred Conrad, community garden program manager at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, remembers seeing the first cluster of community gardens appear in 1997, started by a group of elderly African-American women looking for ways to improve their neighborhoods.

One was on the grounds of what was then Carver Homes in southwest Atlanta and the other was at Tobie Grant Manor near the DeKalb Farmer’s Market in Scottdale.

“The gardens were dynamic and beautiful,” Conrad said.

Eventually gardens began popping up all over. Today Conrad estimates there are more than 300 active community gardens in metro Atlanta. He credits First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign with helping fuel the movement.

“People were making the connection between their health and the foods they ate,” Conrad said. “They were thinking about where the food was grown, whether it was in season and how farmers were impacting the local economy and if they were being treated well.”

Community gardens come in all shapes and sizes. Fayette County Master Garden Association works one of the largest operations, producing 35,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year, all of which is given to needy families. Captain Planet Foundation manages more than 110 “learning” gardens at schools throughout the metro area and distributes more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to food pantries and food banks.

Finding a community garden a year ago was a godsend for Lenease Anderson, 43, and her family of seven.

“(It) helps us make it week-to-week because fruit and vegetables are so expensive,” said Anderson, who lives in Douglasville. “Plus I want to train my kids to have healthy eating habits and keep their allergies at bay.”

She and her oldest daughter volunteer at Truly Living Well, an Atlanta nonprofit that operates urban gardens and a produce market. It also provides instruction on growing backyard gardens.

The Truly Living Well market is among 40 markets across Georgia that doubles the value of SNAP food stamps. The program is an initiative of Wholesome Wave Georgia, a non-profit organization with a mission to make fresh, locally grown foods available to all Georgians. At participating markets, one SNAP dollar buys two dollars worth of produce, dairy products, eggs and meat. For a list of participating markets, go to www.wholesomewavegeorgia.org.

More than $1.4 million worth of healthy, fresh, locally produced foods have been distributed to the state’s SNAP recipients since the program started in 2009, said Sara Berney, executive director.

Wholesome Wave, Atlanta Community Food Bank, Captain Planet Foundation, Truly Living Well and 14 other organizations are partners in Georgia Food Oasis, a non-profit organization that is teaching residents of food deserts how to eat, cook and grow fresh, healthy foods.

Last year the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation awarded a two-year, $273,000 grant to the organization to establish a Westside Food Oasis featuring a seasonal pop-up market selling fresh local produce.

More recently, the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation gave $815,000 to Georgia Organics so it can take the Georgia Food Oasis campaign to communities across the state and expand its highly successful Farm to School program, which is enabling schools to deliver locally grown produce.

Policy changes

When it comes to solving Atlanta’s food desert problems, great strides have been made on a the grassroots level, says Michael Wall, director of programs at Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic farming. But he’d like to see more elected officials become part of the solution.

Georgia Organics and the Atlanta Local Food Initiative led the effort behind a new zoning ordinance approved last summer, making it easier to operate non-commercial urban gardens in the city limits of Atlanta. The organization is also working with school systems to establish wellness policies that would put fresh, local ingredients in school meals, thereby benefiting both children and local farmers.

Community health expert Michelle Eichinger believes policy makers are key to eliminating food deserts.

She points to cities such as Chicago, where officials approved ordinances allowing fresh food carts to operate in neighborhoods where they were once prohibited and instituting a healthy corner store program that encourages retail establishments to stock healthier food items.

That program is the inspiration behind a similar effort here, said Nazeera Dawood, manager of the Fulton County Health Promotion Initiative. Three years ago the county partnered with the Center for Family Farm Development Inc. to create a “healthy corner store network” in neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh and Bankhead.

The cost to renovate stores and licensing issues have presented challenges, said Ariel Harris, CEO of Family Farm Development, so for now the organization is partnering with Pittsburgh Resurrection and Metro Atlanta Urban Farm to hold weekly farmer’s markets in Pittsburgh and College Park. They’re also offering training in urban gardening, health screenings and a food storytelling project.

Although there is still plenty of need for more healthy food options in many of metro Atlanta’s low-income neighborhoods, much is being done to turn things around.

“There is still much to do, but I think we have all the pieces in place,” Harris said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.