By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
What is 'food insecurity' and who does it affect?
09012019 HUNGER 5.jpg
Meals On Wheels volunteer Ann Shuler knocks on a door at Rainey Street Homes Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, delivering meals to some residents at the complex. Food insecurity is an issue that plagues 8% of people in Hall County. That number has been dropping over the past few years, and local experts have a hope for the future that food insecurity will be eradicated, or at least continue to drop. - photo by Scott Rogers

Monica Newton can’t help but picture each of her patients sitting in front of her when she thinks about food insecurity.

It’s a struggle that affects one out of every 13 people in Hall County, according to Feeding America. At 8% in the most recent data available, Hall’s food insecurity rate is in line with most of North Georgia’s counties. It’s not as bad as some counties in middle Georgia and parts of southwest Georgia, which range anywhere from 15% to 27%.

Food insecurity is a struggle Newton said spans “the cross section of our community.”

“It's there, it just hasn't reached the level of attention I think it probably needs to,” said Newton, chair of primary and urgent care for Northeast Georgia Physicians Group and a program director for family medicine residency at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “I think we've relegated it to something that charities do.”

09012019 HUNGER 1.jpg
Meals On Wheels volunteer Ann Shuler drops off a meal to Martha Suggs Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, as part of her route delivering meals to area residents. Food insecurity is an issue that plagues 8% of people in Hall County. That number has been dropping over the past few years, and local experts have a hope for the future that food insecurity will be eradicated, or at least continue to drop. - photo by Scott Rogers

Feeding America defines food insecurity as a “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” Newton said that uncertainty has a ripple effect.

“It translates into patients rationing their food, maybe not picking up their medication because they need to eat,” Newton said.

According to a 1995 study by the United States Department of Agriculture, an estimated 11.9% of U.S. households experienced some degree of food insecurity at some time during that year. Five years later, in 2000, the number dropped to 10%. In 2005, it rose to 11% and in 2010, it rose even more to 14.5%. The three most recent numbers available — much like the local numbers from Feeding America — show a slight decline year over year, with 12.7% in 2015, 12.3% in 2016 and 11.8% in 2017. That information is collected in a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Locally, the Georgia Mountain Food Bank and its 70 partner agencies report numbers online to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which then reports to Feeding America. It’s all done on a monthly basis.

09012019 HUNGER 3.jpg
Meals On Wheels volunteer Ann Shuler loads a basket with food as she makes her rounds Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, delivering meals to area residents. Food insecurity is an issue that plagues 8% of people in Hall County. That number has been dropping over the past few years, and local experts have a hope for the future that food insecurity will be eradicated, or at least continue to drop. - photo by Scott Rogers

Feeding America says that in 2017, 8% of people in Hall County were considered food insecure.That’s better than the 8.3% in 2016 and the 8.5% in 2015

The partner agencies report pounds of goods distributed, number of people served and how many of those are under 18 or over 65. The Georgia Mountain Food Bank only reports the number of pounds received and number of pounds distributed.

For the 2019 fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, the Georgia Mountain Food Bank had 2,854,906 pounds of food come into its facility. It distributed 2,595,583 pounds. That’s 11% less food distributed when compared to the 2018 fiscal year.

Blackstock said the number doesn’t have to do with people needing less food, but it was simply a down year of food that was donated to the food bank.

“One of the things that I find interesting about food insecurity is it's recurrent, but it's not chronic,” Newton said. “And I think that’s a really big distinction. It's recurrent, which means the circumstances that are creating the insecurity may recur, but they often don't last forever.”

Food insecurity has changed over the years. 

09012019 HUNGER 4.jpg
Meals On Wheels volunteer Ann Shuler chats with Cecil Dorsey Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, as she delivers meals to Gainesville residents along her assigned route. Food insecurity is an issue that plagues 8% of people in Hall County. That number has been dropping over the past few years, and local experts have a hope for the future that food insecurity will be eradicated, or at least continue to drop. - photo by Scott Rogers

Food insecurity could be caused by a slew of reasons: language, transportation, culture.

Blackstock said for residents who don’t speak English, it’s sometimes hard to find resources and then access them. Children are often the ones speaking on the parent’s behalf, which can get tricky.

And when it comes to the diverse range of cultures in the area, Blackstock said all the foods people receive might not be familiar.

“If you get a bag of groceries, there are foods in there that people don’t know what to do with,” Blackstock said. “They’re not familiar with eating them or maybe it’s a religious thing that could be a restriction for them.”

Different instances of food insecurity is something Sara Sheridan hears about quite often.

“Our lunchroom staff and nutrition managers are the front line for that,” said Sheridan, nutrition coordinator for Hall County Schools. “They do tell me frequently that some of their students come in extra hungry at breakfast on Monday mornings and they eat more on Fridays because they're going home on the weekends … they kind of get a feel that food might not be as abundant at home as it is at school.”

Sheridan said they don’t turn away students who can’t afford their meals, but if a student isn’t enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, they can rack up charges that make food insecurity more of a possibility at home.

“These kids, a lot of them don't have jobs,” Sheridan said. “They're in school all day. They don't have the skills to cook yet, so they're completely dependent on an adult to provide their meals. So to me, they're kind of — I hate to say helpless in the situation, but that's kind of what the situation is.”

The older population in Hall also finds itself in the same position.

09012019 HUNGER 6.jpg
Meals On Wheels volunteer Ann Shuler makes her rounds Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, delivering meals to area residents. Food insecurity is an issue that plagues 8% of people in Hall County. That number has been dropping over the past few years, and local experts have a hope for the future that food insecurity will be eradicated, or at least continue to drop. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I find that my patients that suffer from food insecurity aren't like the typical patients you see on the television that are hungry,” Newton said. “They’re the people that look like they have it together that are insecure, particularly our older adults.”

Elderly people sometimes face food insecurity when a spouse dies and they no longer have that extra income or when they’re disabled themselves and don’t have the ability to go to the grocery store so they go without food.

“Some of them may have lovely homes,” said Phillippa Moss, director of Gainesville-Hall County Community Services. “People can have assets and have physical, material things, yet they don't have the physical capacity to prepare solid meals for themselves any longer.”

Meals on Wheels, one of the programs Gainesville-Hall County Community Services coordinates, delivers meals to residents 60 and older in Hall County. The number of deliveries rises each month and Moss said there’s always a need for volunteers to make those deliveries.

Those residents who receive meals may have loving families, but that family doesn’t live in the area so they’re unable to provide for their elderly relative.

“As you age, you could be a millionaire, but if you've lost the use of your arms, you still can't cook,” Moss said. “Or if you don't have family around to get you to the grocery store, it doesn't do you much good.”

Moss said she has hope for the future of food insecurity — that is, that it will be eradicated or substantially reduced. She said it’s one of the most manageable problems the community faces because it doesn’t only require monetary capital. She said it mostly requires coordination in the community. Restaurants could donate leftover food instead of throwing it out. People could volunteer to deliver with Meals on Wheels.

Newton agreed and said she hopes to see standardized questions to identify food insecurity added to physician’s routine.

“We recognize it when we see it, but we're not screening for it,” Newton said. “When you come to the doctor, that's not part of our standard protocol. And the reason we don't ask is because if people say they are (food insecure) then we're not really sure what to do about that.”

It’s an issue Newton said makes her and other physicians “uncomfortable.” Although she said she sees it getting better in the future, there’s no immediate solution — no medication, no procedure — she can give to patients. All she can do is point them to a food pantry and hope it helps.

“To bring it up makes us feel uncomfortable because we often don't know what we can do about it,” Newton said.

But as time passes and more people become aware of it, she’s hoping with the help of physicians and the community, solutions are found.

“We can become not just suppliers of medications and diagnosis, but we can become the connectors to the community resources.”


Empty Bowl Lunch

What: Annual fundraiser for the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, featuring soups and salads from Performance Foodservice, a live auction including hand-painted bowls by celebrities like Blackberry Smoke, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, and Atlanta United, plus the presentation of community awards.

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24, with presentation beginning at 11:45 a.m.

Where: Lanier Technical College, Ramsey Conference Center, 2535 Lanier Tech Drive, Gainesville

How much: $30 donation suggested, includes small painted bowl as memento

More info: 770-534-4111 or www.gamountainfoodbank.org/emptybowl