On a sunny Monday afternoon in mid-September, Athens business leaders, residents and a few political bigwigs gathered on a warehouse floor, ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.
The event also marked the grand re-opening of the food bank’s Athens location on Newton Bridge Road following a major revamp of the site. Visitors sat politely in chairs facing a podium where the food bank’s president, John Becker, began the program by thanking the many donors at the national, state and local levels who had contributed to the three-year long capital campaign that paid for the renovations. Later, after snagging a piece of cake or a cookie iced to look like a vegetable, the group would tour the new space.
The changes are all part of an effort to distribute 1 million more pounds of food per year, said Becker, before he shared an even loftier goal of ending hunger in northeast Georgia in five years.
“We can do that now. We’ve got two new truck docks [and] an extra 24,000 effective feet of storage space,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got fresh frozen storage, and we’re working on just-in-time shipping. We’re working with our agencies. We can do this.”
If Becker offered a vision of the future, Mayor Nancy Denson was on hand to remind attendees of the food bank’s beginnings. A somewhat apocryphal tale claims that the food bank started in Denson’s garage, although in truth, Denson said, her garage just became a staging area for one of the first drives put on by the newly formed food bank when some paperwork held up the use of the facility the board had leased.
“I happened to be the only person on the board with a garage with doors that shut,” she said.
In those early days, “we referred to the food bank visitors as neighbors,” said Denson, because if you don’t help a neighbor in need, what does that say about you? This was a sentiment repeated by almost every speaker at the podium, including U.S. Rep. Jody Hice.
Turning to a broad, national outlook, Hice mentioned the 2018 renegotiation of the federal farm bill. The Locavore touched on the policies that the farm bill authorizes earlier this year, the largest of which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. These benefits, in addition to the efforts of the food bank, are crucial to reducing food insecurity in Athens.
“I think we have a great opportunity, frankly, to find ways to make more secure and even to increase the sustainability of these types of programs,” Hice said. “All of that is extremely critical to what we’re all doing here.”
It’s a rather encouraging remark from the very conservative Hice, given that his party is aiming to slash programs that are designed to reduce poverty. Cuts to these benefits could mean that families have to make even more tough choices about how to spend their income, and unfortunately, food may not win out over the cost of medication or rent. Even if SNAP benefits remain untouched, the spillover effect may indirectly cause families to go hungry.
Still, Becker is committed to his goal. “If we’re getting the job done of ending hunger, then food insecurity should be zero in our area,” he said. Becker even joked that he’d like to see a counter tick down the number of hungry people in northeast Georgia with each meal served.
“That picture is 14 million meals from the Food Bank of NEGA. We’re right at 10 million meals now, so now that five-year counter takes off in getting there.”
Of course, hunger mirrors the economic condition of a community, and as of now, over one-third of Athens residents are living below the poverty line. And rural communities like those that make up most of northeast Georgia are more likely to grapple with food insecurity than urban areas.
To a cynical mind, it begs the question of whether that counter can ever reach zero. But given the growth and success of the food bank’s many efforts to tackle hunger—Food2Kids, Hunger Bowl, Kids Café, the mobile food pantry and partner agency distributions, to name a few—there’s reason to believe.
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