As families gather for Thanksgiving this week, we should consider that in just a decade Georgia has deteriorated from average (ranking 22nd) to fourth highest for food insecurity in the nation.
One in seven Georgia households experienced food insecurity during 2006-2008, according to a report released last week by the USDA. The share of Georgia households lacking resources for adequate meals rose from 10.9 percent during 1996-1998 to 14.2 percent during 2006-2008.
These sobering numbers highlight the importance of focusing solutions on combating hunger and poverty in our communities.
How do we do this? Communities across the state are providing support to hungry families through local food banks and pantries to address just this issue.
In metro Atlanta, for example, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has distributed 24 percent more pounds of food through October of this year compared with the same period last year to meet the growing need.
Beyond local responses and resources, another important tool is public policy. By thoughtful budgeting and policy-making, the state government and local advocates have a powerful opportunity to reduce the number of Georgians experiencing food insecurity.
For example, expanding participation rates within the federally funded nutrition programs, especially among the unemployed, should be a top priority.
Food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts, and summer programs will reach more than 1 million Georgians this year and provide critical resources for nutritious meals.
Additional benefits are available through the federal stimulus package, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in February, which increases food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent and sends more than $650 million to Georgia tables over the next five years.
However, many more families remain eligible for federal nutrition assistance but are not enrolled.
Participation levels in federal food aid programs in Georgia range from only 11 percent to 68 percent and hit children — the very people who need adequate nutrition in order to develop their brains and bodies, and the ones least able to advocate for themselves — worst of all.
The state needs skilled staff to reach and qualify residents who can benefit from the millions of untapped dollars in federal nutrition assistance available to Georgians.
Although the federal stimulus package includes funds for state food stamp eligibility workers, lawmakers have chosen to furlough already-stretched eligibility workers to address the daunting loss of state revenues.
Moreover, the Georgia Department of Human Services plans to lay off 733 federal benefit eligibility workers in the coming year if the governor requires an additional 3 percent cut in services, as he states in his contingency plan.
When stimulus funds begin expiring next year, programs serving the elderly such as the Meals on Wheels also will be in danger.
At a time when more families are struggling with hunger and food pantries are stressed to the limit, we must all ensure public efforts are not diminished.
Donations to food pantries are an essential ingredient, but they must be combined with thoughtful public policy and budgeting. Georgia has made great strides in reducing hunger in the past; we must do so again.
Sarah Beth Gehl is deputy director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan organization engaged in research and education about Georgia’s fiscal health. To find county-by-county estimates of food insecurity, download the institute’s report “Reaching Georgia’s Tables,” released in March, at www.gbpi.org.