With $900K Falcons grant, Georgia Organics revamps food insecurity fight

Credit: Jarek James

Credit: Jarek James

Food insecurity is widespread in Georgia. Scores of census tracts – both big and small and urban and rural – face barriers to accessing fresh food, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

The economic and societal disruptions of COVID-19 only exacerbated the problem. For the past two years, the philanthropic arms of Atlanta’s sports teams have tried to help.

Braves front office staff packaged nearly 100,000 chef-crafted meals with food sitting idle in Truist Park’s freezers, continuing its Home Plate Project throughout the season.

The Hawks partnered with Goodr to create pop-up grocery stores, and The Dream accepted non-perishable food, cutlery and condiments to help stock free-to-access refrigerators in metro Atlanta alongside Free99Fridge.

In December, the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation committed $900,000 to Georgia Organics over the next three years. The nonprofit connects communities to farmers and provides mini-grants to food-focused organizations through its “Georgia Food Oasis” program.

Foundation spokesperson Caroline Huston said it’s one of 23 grants amounting to more than $2 million the foundation sent to nonprofits combating food insecurity last year.

Georgia Organics, a foundation partner for years, plans to use the latest funding to refocus its programs.

Community outreach manager Suzanne Girdner said the goal is “movement building” with other AFYF-funded groups and partnered communities, such as Augusta, Columbus and Savannah, expanding the mini-grant program and working more directly with farmers.

“Everything for us is really filtering through farmer prosperity,” Girdner said. “Farmers being prosperous and communities being prosperous — they go together.”

Food oases from the Westside to statewide

John Bare, former senior vice president at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which is the youth foundation’s parent organization, said he came to understand the same community-food connection about a decade ago in Westside Atlanta.

In the early stages of the foundation’s development projects in the English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill neighborhoods around Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it worked with the Georgia Supermarket Access Task Force. Its goal was to bring more grocery stores to food insecure areas.

Research by Jerry Shannon, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, shows how supermarket chains followed the movement of white Atlantans to the metro area.

“That’s where the profitable market was,” Shannon said. “And supermarkets work well in suburban spaces. They focus on big stores with big parking lots … and those don’t work as well in cities.”

But low population density reduced the benefits of bringing new stores to Atlanta, Bare said. He and his colleagues found discussions about brokering deals with big groceries or research on food deserts fell apart on the ground.

Instead, residents talked about passing cooking knowledge to their kids and grandkids. They talked about feeling accepted at supermarkets and the transportation issues that close them off from fresh food.

“It is 100% about people and family and relationships,” Bare said. “And not about a transaction or a commodity.”

Those lessons gave birth to the youth foundation’s Food Oasis initiative. Money went to a dozen organizations like Truly Living Well and Community Farmers Markets, which focus on gardens and pop-up markets that meet people where they are. The Foundation had a particular focus on bringing fresh produce to schools. Enter Georgia Organics.

Girdner said Georgia Organics’ track record with farm-to-school programs — the group partners with 90 school districts in the state — was appealing to the foundation. It was an opportunity to create statewide food supply chains based on the Atlanta Food Oasis model.

“Having fresh food choices that fit people’s lifestyle and their life routine … is really important,” Girdner said. “Whether it’s a workplace or child care center or school environment.”

Their partnership expanded beyond farm-to-school over the years, and gradually more support from the youth foundation spawned the Georgia Food Oasis program.

Credit: Suzanne Girdner

Credit: Suzanne Girdner

Pop-up in Decatur

Gabbie Atsepoyi received a mini-grant from Georgia Organics in spring 2021. Her community in south DeKalb County experiences significant food insecurity, according to data from the USDA and Shannon’s research as well as Atsepoyi’s experience.

So, she created Sun Market, which convened every Saturday from April to October 2021.

Atsepoyi described the pop-up market as a melting pot of culture and cuisine. Offerings ranged from kimchi and Korean fried chicken to vegan coffee, pottery and candles.

But the main motivation behind Sun Market is bringing local, organic fruits and vegetables to her neighbors.

“Especially in the beginning part of this, I was told way too many times … the people in our area don’t want fresh produce,” Atsepoyi said. “And that is not the truth.”

Atsepoyi decided to buy produce wholesale, emphasizing food grown by Black farmers, and put together bags of fresh food to sell below typical market prices. Sun Market matches EBT purchases, doubling the amount of food visitors can buy using EBT.

Money from Georgia Organics went to grassroots marketing – think flyers at bus stops and a wind-proof banner – and overall lessened the financial burden of organizing the market.

“I definitely would have either been in a lot of debt, or I would have been using my hard-earned savings to start this,” Atsepoyi said. “This isn’t a profitable thing.”

She said her goal is to build a permanent market, find land for growing and continue to donate to the Free99Fridge.


Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.

Today’s story comes from our newest partner, the Covering Poverty project, which is part of the Journalism Writing Lab, an initiative of the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership at the University of Georgia.

This story and others will become part of an online toolkit, coveringpoverty.uga.edu, which is devoted to helping journalists across the country cover meaningful stories about people and poverty-related matters.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at nicole.williams@ajc.com.