With fewer grocery stores — and thus, less competition — residents in the southwest Georgia city of Dawson pay more for food than their counterparts in metro Atlanta. They also rely more on food stamps, but their benefits don’t go as far when they’re buying items such as iceberg lettuce, American cheese, spaghetti, grean beans and milk. (Photo by Maya T. Prabhu)

Food stamp use is highest in rural Georgia. So are grocery prices.

Poor, rural Georgians pay more for fresh lettuce, macaroni and cheese, and other foods in part because there is so little competition for their business, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review.

Georgia’s lawmakers have spent the past several years focusing on ways to boost the economy in rural areas, but little has been done to address the emergence of food deserts across the state as grocery stores go out of business.

It’s a trend occurring across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 5 million people in rural areas have to travel 10 miles or more to buy groceries.

Some experts say the federal government should invest even more in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — to improve access to food for rural Georgians who typically have lower incomes, are more likely to receive the benefit but have to pay the higher prices.

“It’s just another variable that makes it difficult for people to become self-sufficient and self-sustaining,” said Frank Sheppard, the president and CEO of the Feeding the Valley food bank that services Terrell County.

But the mostly Republican rural lawmakers in the General Assembly balk at the idea of expanding access to food stamps and instead have passed legislation that limits who and how long someone can receive the benefits that impact the people they represent. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stop short of suggesting an increased benefit amount but instead support a revised formula based on need.

The 25 ZIP codes with the highest rates of people receiving food stamps were all in rural counties, according to an AJC analysis of state records. Conversely, the 25 ZIP codes with the lowest rates of food stamp disbursement all were in the Atlanta area.

The review of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by ZIP code found that residents with a Dawson ZIP code in southwest Georgia between Columbus and Albany were the most likely to receive assistance in Georgia.

Those southwest Georgia residents will likely pay more for groceries than someone who lives in parts of Atlanta where the rate of people receiving food stamps is lower than anywhere else in the state.

Experts say there are a number of reasons grocery prices are higher, including few stores creating a lack of competition and the time it takes to deliver goods to more rural parts of the state.

A person buying a head of iceberg lettuce last month in the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Dawson paid $2.99. In the Kroger on Metropolitan Parkway in Atlanta, a head of iceberg lettuce cost $1.49.

Many Dawson shoppers were shocked to learn groceries were more expensive in their area.

“You usually think cost of living is higher in cities than it is here,” said Brenda, a teacher’s aide who asked that her last name be withheld as a condition of her speaking publicly about her personal finances and the stigma of receiving public benefits.

Brenda said she is one of the thousands in Dawson who scramble to make ends meet and receive assistance from SNAP to help feed their families. She said people in the area struggle to find good-paying jobs and need help from SNAP and other resources to make sure they can put food on the table.

Steve Ricks, a retired truck driver who lives in Dawson, said he’d noticed the difference in prices where he lives versus other more populated parts of the state.

He said many times he’ll drive the 20-plus miles to Albany to get cheaper food or gas, but he recognizes that’s not an option for everyone.

“Some people have to buy everything here because they don’t have the transportation to get there,” he said. “They need to do something to change the prices and make it more in line.”

By the numbers

Terrell County has one of the highest rates of “food insecurity” in the state. Food insecurity is when at least one member of a household does not have enough food due to economic constraints, said Craig Gundersen, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana who studies access to food.

“Oftentimes in a lot of these smaller, rural counties, what you’re going to have is lower average incomes, so more people are eligible to receive SNAP,” Gundersen said.

When you add higher food prices to the equation, it exacerbates food insecurity in rural areas, he said.

Almost 3,300 people living in Terrell County received SNAP benefits in March — making up more than 38% of its 8,600-some residents, an AJC analysis found.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 33% of Terrell County residents were estimated to live in poverty as of July. The median annual household income was about $32,000 in 2017.

The median household income for Georgia was about $53,000, and the Census Bureau estimated that 14% of the state’s residents live in poverty.

State Rep. Gerald Greene, a Cuthbert Republican whose district includes Dawson, said he knows many of his constituents rely on food stamps to pay for groceries.

“There are many individuals out there that are in need,” Greene said. “If we find out that there’s somebody that’s suffering throughout the district, Sen. (Freddie Powell) Sims and I both are on it trying to find ways to assist them.”

Sims, a Dawson Democrat, also represents the area.

Over the course of a week, an AJC reporter visited grocery stores in Dawson, Blakely and the Atlanta ZIP codes — where food stamp use is low — to compare prices on 17 basic food items, such as bread, milk, eggs, canned tuna, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs.

On average, food in Dawson was more expensive than the other areas visited. A can of store-brand green beans cost $1.19 in the Dawson Piggly Wiggly, compared with 65 cents at the Kroger on Metropolitan Parkway in Atlanta.

A Dawson shopper would have paid $50.49 to purchase all 17 items at the Piggly Wiggly. Those same 17 items would have cost $40.97 at the Kroger on Metropolitan.

The average household of two people received $265 in food stamps in March, according to the state Division of Family and Children Services. The amount someone receives in SNAP benefits is determined by income, household size and various monthly expenses, such as rent, electricity and gas, as set by the federal government.

Because housing is more expensive in Atlanta, it’s possible that a Dawson resident would receive less money through SNAP even though he or she will pay more for groceries.

The disparity in food costs isn’t only found between cities and rural areas, but within cities, said Sheppard, the food bank CEO.

“I have noticed higher grocery prices in not only rural areas, but also I have experienced that before in the city of Columbus in an area that is the more highly impoverished part of town,” Sheppard said.

Why is food more expensive in rural Georgia?

Industry experts and economists point to a variety of reasons why food costs vary depending upon location.

Factors such as the cost of theft, competition and transporting goods to stores all play a part in determining how much food will cost.

“The supermarket industry has a very low profit margin (averaging just over 1%) and the price a customer sees on a supermarket’s shelves will be based on many factors,” said Kathy Kuzava, the president of the Georgia Food Industry Association. “For example, a rural store has a higher cost of operations, including higher costs in freight charges to get product to the store.”

Even in urban areas, studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service have found that fewer supermarkets lead to higher prices.

A 2018 study found that food prices were 9.2% higher in urban areas where at least one-third of the population lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket compared with those who have greater access to food stores.

“Consumers in neighborhoods with limited numbers of supermarkets would have to pay the higher prices or travel farther to shop for their foods, incurring travel time and expenses,” the researchers wrote.

Sims, the Dawson state senator, said the closure of grocery stores in her area over several years has allowed surviving supermarkets to benefit from lack of competition and charge more for their food.

“The more stores you have and more competition, the lower prices are going to be,” she said. “That’s the biggest problem. Much of Terrell County is in a food desert, and until recently, they did not have a functioning food bank.”

Sheppard said the amount of food his Midland-based organization distributes has continued to climb.

“There’s a lot of need here,” he said. “People have limited resources, and then there’s the cost of living in a food desert that leads to high rates of food insecurity.”

According to the Map the Meal Gap study of food insecurity, the average meal in Georgia cost $2.93 in 2017, with 14.4% of the state’s population having gone hungry at some point that year. In Terrell County, nearly 25% of its population went hungry in 2017, according to the study.

Gundersen, who leads research for the study, said a lot of times, the cost of food comes down to whether there’s a Walmart nearby.

“If you have a Walmart, you’re going to have lower food prices,” he said. “Less competition makes prices higher.”

Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said only having access to more expensive food puts financial stress on people who already are having a hard time.

“The implication is that families in rural areas or nonmetro Atlanta areas are having to work twice or three times more to stretch their dollar,” he said.

Brenda, the Dawson resident, said it’s unfair that people living in poorer parts of the state have to pay more for groceries than their urban counterparts.

“The government needs to do something to help us in rural areas,” she said.

But she’s not sure what can be done.

‘Certain things we don’t know how to address’

Georgia lawmakers have worked to revive the rural economy, resulting in incremental steps toward internet access, health care and business growth. The Legislature has invested millions of dollars to try to bring jobs to rural areas, such as the creation of the Center for Rural Prosperity in Tifton, which has an annual budget of $1.7 million.

They’ve also supported policies that limit access to food stamps, such as the reinstatement of work requirements that led to nearly 200,000 fewer people receiving SNAP between mid-2018 and early 2019.

Both Greene and Sims said they will continue to help residents who have difficulty accessing food by making them aware of the programs that are available — including the Feeding the Valley food bank and meal programs offered by schools.

But they’re not sure anything can be done to lower grocery store prices.

“There are certain things we can address and certain things we don’t know how to address,” Greene said. “But we’re not going to get into a situation where you start telling people what to charge.”

Ricks, the retired truck driver, said he worried about people taking advantage of food stamps and that the best way his neighbors could combat poverty was to get education, training and better-paying jobs.

“I want people who are in need to get them so they can eat. Nobody should go hungry,” he said. “But it needs to be better regulated. I’ve seen kids use food stamp cards to get a Coke and a bag of potato chips. That shouldn’t happen.”

Gundersen, the Illinois researcher, said the best way to ensure more people have access to healthy food options is to increase not only the amount of money each person can receive in food stamps, but to increase the number of people who are eligible for the benefit across the state.

“The most important thing is to continue to allow states to set higher gross income thresholds to make more people eligible for the program and increase SNAP benefit levels,” he said. “There’s no more effective way.”

Sheppard, the food bank leader, agreed that SNAP benefits should be increased, but he said the government should consider more factors when determining how much someone received.

“There can be a systematic way of doing it,” he said. “They can consider those under more dire circumstances — like those in food deserts or impoverished areas to offset the higher cost of groceries and the cost of transportation.”

But Sims said she knows changing the pay structure is a heavy request.

“One thing government is slow to do is to change the way they do things based on how factors in society change over time,” she said. “Until then, we need to make sure people know about these organizations that spend a lot of time trying to make certain that people have opportunities to have a better quality of life.”

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