Retired Military and Georgia Community Leaders Urge Lawmakers to Remedy Food Insecurity
Georgia food insecurity likely rose during the pandemic—and now state and federal policymakers need to maintain the safety net
Georgia is struggling with food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, like many states. Food insecurity constitutes a health risk to hundreds of thousands of Georgians and manifests itself in many ways, including rising obesity among young people that can leave them ineligible to serve their country in the armed forces.
On March 23, experts and retired military leaders discussed the food insecurity crisis in a forum convened by Rear Admiral (Ret.) Frank Ponds of Mission: Readiness.
“For over a decade, members of Mission: Readiness have been sounding the alarm over the staggering fact that 71 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds across the country are ineligible to serve in the military, with excess body weight being one of the primary disqualifiers for service,” Admiral Ponds said. “In Georgia, it’s even worse, with 73 percent ineligible as of September of 2020.”
Food organizations across the state have redoubled their efforts due to increased demand during the pandemic. Nevertheless, Georgia food insecurity climbed from 12 percent overall and 14.9 percent for children in 2019 to projected 2021 figures of 12.8 percent overall and 15.9 percent for children, according to Feeding America.
Mission: Readiness prepared a report in 2020 on the challenges in Georgia, Nutrition Matters for Georgia’s Kids. The report spotlighted the sad reality that a large percentage of young people are ineligible for military service in a state where service in the armed forces has long been culturally significant. “Improving access to fresh and nutritious foods can improve children’s health and reduce obesity, which can strengthen national security by ensuring the military has a healthy pool of recruits,” the report says.
Other participants at the forum included Jon West, Vice President of Partnerships for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Tammy Reasoner, Director of Community Partnerships for Open Hand Atlanta, Mike Reeves, Agency Advocate for the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank, and Kim Soltero, the Food Network Manager at Second Helpings Atlanta.
All of the participants spoke about the already broad need to fight food insecurity—needs that have been magnified over the past two years. “Even before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of Macon-Bibb County residents already lived below the poverty line. And, during the pandemic, we saw a profound need, because of all the people who worked at hotels and restaurants and other businesses that closed down who lost their work,” Reeves said. “Last year, we supplied more than 12 million pounds of food, and that’s our busiest year ever. The COVID pandemic really increased the number of people who were seeking assistance and exacerbated the need for those already receiving assistance.”
Specific federal programs and laws strengthen local communities’ ability to serve those in need. Those programs include the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. SNAP and WIC await congressional action that would update the rules last set 12 years ago.
“COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity has brought attention to shortcomings in these and other federal nutrition programs, including problems with enrollment,” Admiral Ponds said. “These programs haven’t been reauthorized and updated by Congress since 2010, so we’re urging Congress to harness the bipartisan support that these programs have in order to get them reauthorized.”
Continual innovation by food security organizations is helpful. “One of our programs, Food is Medicine, provides healthy meals to at-risk youth through the Summer Food Service Program. And the number of youth that we served through that Summer Food program grew substantially during COVID,” Reasoner said. “Another of our programs, Cooking Matters, aims to improve nutrition knowledge of food insecure patients and encourage them to adopt healthy eating and resource management behaviors.”
Experts in communities like Atlanta are also strengthening their efforts in the innovative realm of food waste prevention. “We have over 300 volunteers who link us with our network of food donors and partner agencies who feed the hungry on a daily basis,” Soltero said. “The food we rescue every day gets diverted from landfills and is used to feed those in need, making Atlanta a more environmentally responsible metropolitan area. In 2021 alone, Second Helpings Atlanta was able to rescue 3.6 million pounds of fresh, surplus food to create three million equivalent meals.”
“It’s very simple,” said West. “Let’s fund the things that work. And make it as easy as possible for people to have access to those programs.”
The conversation highlighted the vital importance of improving nutrition programs for kids at the federal, state, and community level. Without access to healthy, nutritious foods, kids are at risk of malnutrition, obesity, and other health issues.