After three months of hearings, a state Senate Study Committee on Improving Access to Healthy Foods and Eliminating Food Deserts this week issued 10 recommendations for combating food insecurity in Georgia that they hope to include in legislation in the new year.
The committee focused on mitigating food insecurity, which encompasses struggles like worrying that food would run out, not being able to afford food consistently, and not having regular access to healthy, nutritious food, among others.
“The issue is one that is not going to necessarily be fixed quickly, but we are on the path to doing something about it,” said committee Chairman Sen. Harold Jones II, a Democrat from Augusta.
The committee heard more than 65 speakers of varying viewpoints during hearings held in Augusta, Valdosta, and Atlanta from August to October. Jones said the committee found concerns regarding education programs, hunger among senior citizens, overregulation of food assistance programs, and access to transportation.
They also studied issues such as the lack of state funds allocated to nutrition programs, and the negative impact of small box stores on communities facing food insecurities.
Georgia’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which allows food purchases from authorized vendors through vouchers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows purchases of food with monthly benefits at authorized stores, exhibited weaknesses across the state, according to some speakers.
The committee’s 10 recommendations include:
- Creating a centralized website to coordinate food resources in communities throughout the state. Jones said that there are many organizations and agencies that are addressing food insecurities, but residents are often unaware of those services. The website, which would go through a state agency, is intended to function as a database where residents could easily locate information about food resources within their communities.
- Establishing a commission, made up of legislators, the governor’s office, and community stakeholders, that is focused on statewide food insecurity. The committee drew inspiration from smaller committees, specifically a task force that worked on grocery store access, and the Food Policy Council. The commission would be expected to address these issues on a yearly basis at a minimum.
- Opening up regulations and minimizing red tape in grocery stores regarding programs like WIC and SNAP. This would help eliminate inconsistencies and ensure that each grocery store had proper access to food covered by these programs.
- Continuing using tax credits to expand grocery stores into food deserts.
- Integrating new markets tax credits, which are designed to encourage investment in lower-income communities. The state can partner with nonprofits and local organizations to implement this strategy.
- Implementing a food education program to encourage healthy eating habits. Jones did not elaborate on whether this would happen in schools or in communities, but said this recommendation was important to combat continued food insecurity more effectively.
- Strengthening food banks and food pantries.
- Adding SNAP to farmer’s markets, giving users access to fresh, healthy, and local food.
- Fostering co-operatives, small farmers, and community gardens, making a more robust network of healthy food providers, and stimulating local economies.
- Continuing to work with existing nonprofit organizations.
Jones said the committee was initially searching for food deserts or areas where residents consistently have very restricted or no access to healthy food options. In the course of their research, they determined that food insecurity was a more widespread problem in Georgia.
The committee examined how local, state, and national policy addressed food insecurities, as well as the economic impact. They also examined what changes the state could make to mitigate food insecurity, and identified ways for the state government to partner with local organizations and nonprofits to address food issues within communities.
Jones said the committee’s next steps will be to draft bipartisan legislation for the 2022 Georgia General Assembly, and then to pursue funding for these new goals and initiatives.