Task force to address Georgia's lack of healthy food options

The retired domestic worker, 84, has access to a small grocery store in her English Avenue neighborhood, but it doesn't sell much in terms of fresh fruits and vegetables. To reach a supermarket with greater variety, Bigby has to catch a bus or have someone drive her, which can be a lengthy process.

Bigby has resorted to maintaining a small garden. "I just do the best I can," she said.

On Monday, the newly formed Georgia Supermarket Access Task Force will meet to examine situations such as the one in the English Avenue community, consider the barriers involved and make recommendations for improvements. A likely solution is opening more supermarkets and fresh food retailers in neglected communities.

The task force was formed largely through the efforts of  the Georgia Family Connection Partnership and the Georgia Food Industry Association. The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based group that has worked on similar projects in other states, also is involved.

"We do track the well-being of children and families across 159 counties and we know there are health issues that children and families face, some of them diet-related," said Gaye Smith, Georgia Family Connection Partnership executive director.

Nearly two million Georgians, many of them children, live in lower-income communities inadequately served by supermarkets, according to a recent study, "Food for Every Child: The Need for More Supermarkets in Georgia," which was compiled by The Food Trust.

English Avenue, Bankhead, Adamsville and Mechanicsville, plus several in areas of South Georgia below Macon, were communities cited in the study.

Lack of access to healthy food leads to health-related problems that include obesity, diabetes and hypertension. In addition, youngsters who don't eat well find it difficult to concentrate in school.

The state's supermarkets were unevenly distributed, the study found, and this was crucial because supermarkets create jobs in a community and spark economic revitalization.

This doesn't come as a surprise to Ronald Cullins, who has lived in the English Avenue community for 19 years. He estimates he has to drive five miles to "get to a good supermarket. These little jackleg stores don't have fresh food. You have one apple and a rotten banana."

Cullins often takes neighbors who are elderly or don't have transportation to the store. 
"Give me a grant and I'll open a store," he said. "Stores don't want to come in here because of the drugs, killings, robberies and stealing. It's killing my neighborhood."

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and several retailers took aim at these "food deserts." Walmart said it planned to open as many as 300 stores in neighborhoods in need by 2016.

Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative is an effort to reduce the high level of childhood obesity in the U.S. Since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has nearly tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation, an affiliated fund of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, last year awarded a two-year, $70,000 grant to The Food Trust to help grocers open stores in neighborhoods in which residents don't have access to fresh produce.

Charles Whatley, director of economic development for the Atlanta Development Authority, said the lack of healthy food options is a statewide problem.

"Where you have inadequate access to healthy food, you have higher incidents of illness, death, absences from school and absences from work," he said. "It impacts everyone in that sense."

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