Food insecurity, poverty, and Covid-19: Impacts in Athens and ways to help

Lara Strydom

Monday, September 28, 2020

Foood insecurity, poverty, and COVID 19: Impacts in Athens and ways to help













The pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated inequities across the U.S. — including food insecurity. U.S. hunger relief organization Feeding America (PDF) estimates that the amount of people struggling with food insecurity in the U.S. may increase by over 17 million this year, due to increased unemployment rates. With Athens-Clarke County’s disproportionately high poverty rate, members of our community are facing an increased set of challenges as they try to put food on the table. 

“We have families, especially with the unemployment rate going up, who are struggling to meet their basic needs. Oftentimes, they are having to make decisions around whether they pay their rent, pay their utilities, or buy food,” Jenn Thompson, Director of the UGA Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, ACC has a poverty rate of 31.6%, as compared to the state poverty rate of 13.3%. Additionally, Feeding America reported in 2018 that 69% of children in the county qualify for the free or reduced lunch program: a number that has likely increased since the onset of the pandemic. 

Impact on lower-income Black communities

“Food justice is racial justice,” Caree Cotwright, University of Georgia assistant professor of foods and nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

As of 2018, Black people accounted for 29.2% of the ACC population — meaning that they are represented in the ACC population at a rate that is more than double of their U.S. population representation. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black people in the United States disproportionately suffer from poverty. The foundation reports that they make up 22% of Americans in poverty, even though they comprise only 13.4% of the population. That being said, because poverty is directly related to an individual’s ability to afford food, Black people are also disproportionately suffering from food insecurity. 

“Everybody in terms of equity should be able to eat and have a meal that helps them to stay healthy and feel good about themselves,” Caree Cotwright, University of Georgia assistant nutrition professor said.

Thompson explained that historical U.S. institutions, such as slavery and Jim Crow, have contributed to these current wealth disparities. Ultimately, these systems — designed to deprive Black people of economic opportunities — have created a cycle in which Black families accumulate less intergenerational wealth to pass on to their children, thus limiting economic opportunities for the Black community. 

“It's like starting the game of Monopoly in which some people have a lot of money and a bunch of houses and other people already are in debt. And you can imagine that game doesn't play out super equitably,” Thompson said. 

Poverty, Food Insecurity and Covid-19

This cycle of poverty and food insecurity explains just one of the many factors that makes Black communities more at-risk for Covid-19 due to the fact that lower-income families already struggling to put food on the table may face additional challenges to accessing healthier foods.

“Even if you're getting assistance, or if you have the type of job that allows you to get money to go get food, to eat food that is good for you can sometimes be more expensive than to eat fast food,” Cotwright said. 

Harvard University reports that a healthy diet for a single person can cost an additional $1.50 per day as compared to the cost of an unhealthy diet. For a family of four, that can add up to an additional $42 per week, totalling up to an extra $2,190 per year, which is a big expense for impoverished families making less than $25,750 per year. Thus, this makes food insecure families more likely to suffer from health issues such as high-blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes — all of which are risk factors for Covid-19. 

Social distancing protocols can also affect a low-income family’s ability to obtain food. For example, many low-income families might not have the option of working remotely. If they are exposed to the virus, a 14-day quarantine could mean that they lose 14 days of pay and must rely on others to bring them food. 

Households that typically rely on public transportation to get groceries may also have an increased chance of contracting the virus due simply to encountering more people on the way to the store. A lack of safe and consistent transportation, may mean fewer trips to the store and a general decreased access to food.

UGA Community Collaboration in Fighting Food Insecurity

“I think one of the silver linings is that more people are kind of opening their eyes, and they want to do something. They want to learn, they want to expose themselves to the issue,” Thompson said. 

As the director of UGA’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, Thompson also works to implement one of the initiative’s biggest projects: Foodshed. The UGA Foodshed Initiative seeks to support local hunger relief organizations by listening to their needs and connecting them to UGA resources through service-learning opportunities, research, volunteering, and more.

Foodshed Intern Whitney Barr is currently working to survey the needs of community members and local partners in order to begin a match-making process that will connect interested students    to specific service-learning and research projects that can actively fulfill those community needs while utilizing students’ specific strengths.

“If you have any interest in any form of social impact, you have to be able to listen to the needs of your community. You can only come up with so many ideas on your own. You need to engage in conversation. It's got to be two-way,” Barr said. 

Students interested in incorporating their research/ service-learning requirements into the mission of UGA Foodshed can reach out to Whitney Barr at

One simple way for students to join the fight against food insecurity is to donate to local food pantries and food banks. Additionally, supporting the Athens Farmers Market can help them continue to implement their FARM (Food as Real Medicine) Rx Program, a partnership with healthcare providers that allows lower-income individuals to redeem doctor-approved prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Athens Farmers Market.

As Athens’ community members continue to face the economic hardships of the pandemic, the demand on local organizations is growing each day as they work to fill the needs of food-insecure households. Whether it’s helping out one day a month, or being a regular volunteer every week, UGA students and faculty can make a tangible difference by choosing to support their local organizations and making themselves aware of the needs of the community around them. And while we recognize that there is no quick-fix to the issue of food insecurity in Athens, we also recognize that each and every one of us has something to contribute in the fight for a more equitable community.

“What I've seen in Athens, Clarke County is the innovation. All these organizations are examples of innovation of how we can come together as a community and solve this problem,” Cotwright said.

Here’s a list of just a few organizations that help fight food-insecurity in Athens: 

Athens Area Emergency Food Bank: This food bank specifically works to provide food for Athens families and individuals who are facing an immediate food crisis and are sent to the bank by an agency referral. Volunteers can participate in a variety of ways from creating meal packages for clients to offering web/ social media assistance or completing administrative tasks for the front office. People can also drop off unopened food donations between 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays.

Athens Community Council on Aging: As an organization focused on supporting the needs of older adults in Athens, they have recently launched an initiative specifically focused on providing food relief to people experiencing food insecurity due to the pandemic. Volunteers can help by making zero-contact food deliveries to households.

Campus Kitchen: A program of the UGA Office of Service-Learning, Campus Kitchen reduces food waste by partnering with local grocery stores like Trader Joes and turning their surplus food into nutritious meals that can be delivered to Athens human service agencies. Volunteers can help out in a variety of different ways whether it be through working in the gardens, cooking meals, or even delivering food to the very people who need it.

Concrete Jungle: Concrete Jungle focuses on providing nutritious fruits and vegetables to food banks by harvesting excess produce from local farms and underutilized fruit trees. Volunteers can help by participating in harvest days such as picking pears from trees or collecting mixed greens from a farm.

East Athens Development Corporation: East Athens Development Corporation works toward a future in Athens where each individual can have the following: a safe and comfortable living space, enough food to eat, access to quality education, wholesome recreational activities, and income to invest in their future. The organization also partners with the Virginia Walker Mobile Food Pantry to serve over 100 families each month. Volunteers can help on food distribution days by creating food boxes, carrying boxes to cars, and helping with any other needs that arise throughout distribution.

Our Daily Bread Community Kitchen: Our Daily Bread distributes more than 75,000 meals each year to families in the Athens area. In response to Covid-19, they are serving grab-and-go lunches Mondays through Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Individual volunteers can help with curbside distribution and clean-up, while volunteer groups can help prepare meals. 

UGArden: UGArden is a student-run farm that harvests their very own sustainably grown produce and donates it to Campus Kitchen for their hunger-relief efforts. Since the farm is directly partnered with the university, students can get involved in a variety of ways including UGArden Club, certain UGA courses, or even through just one day of volunteering.