Reaping What Athens Sows: Addressing Access to Fresh, Local Foods for Athens Residents
Shoppers come to collect their online orders from the Athens Locally Grown location next to Ben’s Bikes on West Broad Street in Athens, GA. Athens Locally Grown is an Athens business that provides fresh food options for locals from farmers and producers in and around the Athens area. (Photo/Jillian Tracy)
A local farmer can spend months tending to a crop, from the time its seeds are sown to when the crop is ready for harvest. By selling products in the local market, farmers can control the price consumers pay to allow themselves to make a profit and cover the costs of labor. (Infographic/Jillian Tracy)
In Clarke County, approximately 20% of people struggle to have consistent access to food. Getting access to fresh, healthy and local produce can be even more of a challenge due to economic costs and transportation factors. (Video/Jillian Tracy)
A stand featuring daily produce options available at the Daily Co-op Store in Athens, GA. (Photo/Jillian Tracy)
By Jillian Tracy
The lettuce in the fridge has a story.
So do the potatoes and corn in the pantry.
Produce travels to American kitchens in several ways; from the aisles of grocery stores, the crates of local farmers and straight from the soil tilled in backyards.
This food is fuel. Fuel that is often seen as more premium when it is plucked fresh from nearby growers.
In Athens, Georgia, locally grown and sourced food can be found all around. Weekly open-air markets have become a staple and garden projects have been established in schools and neighborhoods. However, there exists a divide between those who can easily access fresh, healthy goods and those who cannot. What is a regular indulgence for some can be an idyllic but nonsensical expense for others.
Before produce and goods can even enter the hands of consumers, they have to first be cultivated.
Eric Wagoner, a former farmer who now owns Athens Locally Grown, an online farmers market for goods from around the Athens area, knows firsthand the struggles of getting a crop ready for sale.
“Folks that get into it really have to be committed to growing things just for the love of it,” Wagoner said. “It’s a ton of time [and] work.”
The work put in by regional farmers does not go unnoticed in Athens. Restaurants utilize produce from local farmers in their daily menu items, some even staking their whole brand on providing fresh, tasty and locally grown food to customers.
Wagoner remembers a version of Athens where this wasn’t always the case.
“Not even 10 years ago, less than that, there wasn’t anything else,” Wagoner said. “There [were] maybe one or two restaurants that had local food and there was us.”
Through “evangelizing” the benefits of shopping and eating local, the fresh food community was strengthened. For Wagoner, two of the biggest benefits of eating locally grown foods are taste and nutrition.
“When you’re buying food that has been trucked in from across the continent. Those farmers aren’t growing varieties based on how good they taste,” Wagoner said. “They choose varieties that are easy to be picked by a machine. . . and are able to be shipped.”
Shorter transit times mean there is less time for a crop to lose valuable nutrients that add to flavor and fewer preservatives that need to be used to keep the food from spoiling during its journey.
Another benefit of eating local; the dollar stays closer to home. Money transferred locally from a resident to a farmer can be recirculated within the community.
The ‘Haves and the Have Nots’
A portion of Athens residents seem to be embracing the upsides of eating local. But for others, there are more obstacles to consider when it comes to choosing where and how to shop.
“What we know especially in a town like Athens is that we are a town of haves and have nots,” said Dr. Jennifer Jo Thompson, an assistant research scientist in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “We have a lot of economic disparity, and that translates into health disparities [and] gaps between the rich and the poor in terms of health and well being.”
According to 2017 data from Feeding America, one in five people in Clarke County is food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to food that fuels an active and healthy lifestyle.
“Food insecurity is complicated because it doesn’t always mean that you’re expressly hungry all the time,” Thompson said. “It means sometimes that you’re making choices for less expensive, less high-quality food in order to have enough to keep your belly full.”
Fresh food often comes at a higher price since local farmers need to be able to cover their production costs and remain viable against larger-scale manufacturers.
Wealthier residents can often afford to spend a few extra dollars on locally grown goods, while lower-income families may not view it as a feasible option.
Luckily, there are some emerging solutions.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits can be utilized by low-income families to buy fresh food at a number of Athens businesses, including the Athens Farmers Market where SNAP benefits are doubled.
“We almost pit the two sides of them against each other, which is not going to make any movement, said Abigail Darwin, a graduate student in UGA’s Crop and Soil Sciences Department who also volunteers at the Athens Farmers Market. “Through the support of this more affluent community, the Farmers Market can provide an alternative for lower-income, lower access members.”
Even with cost removed from the equation, factors like time, reliable transportation and knowledge of meal prepping techniques can discourage people from trying out healthier food options.
“That risk of having spent your money on something that doesn’t taste good and that your family won’t eat is a very real risk for people whose every dollar matters,” Thompson said.
Cultivating A Better Food Community
Several other resources and projects are being implemented across Athens to make it easier for people to eat healthy, freshly grown foods.
The Athens Farmers Market’s FoodRx food prescription program, Athens Land Trust’s network of community gardens and Clarke County’s School Garden Network along with UGA’s Foodshed and UGArden are community efforts that focus on allowing residents to reshape their relationship with sustainable and nutritious locally grown foods.
Just as important as providing access to more food is changing the attitude and conversation around food insecurity.
“We also see people talk about building relationships, feeling more welcome at the Farmers Market, feeling more confident about their ability to make and use food, healthy food, food that they might not have eaten otherwise,” Thompson said.
Some people may never worry about where they can get their next head of lettuce from, but as a community, Athens is working to repaint the image of food security in the mind of every resident and provide a better quality of life for all.
“Part of community is you’re defining your own definition of community and you need to be sure that in that definition, you’re providing room for marginalized groups,” said Darwin