Imagine standing in a blazing hot field surrounded by several plots of farmland. Just over the hill, a large cottonwood tree provides shade for produce you just harvested during the early morning. Birds chirp while perching before faithfully flying off into the sky. Butterflies and bees circle about your head. From this place, you glance up and over the rows of plants, you see the outline of Atlanta under the glistening sun. This describes my view on most days during my internship at the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB).
I traveled to Atlanta with thirteen other Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty interns for a summer that changed my perspectives on various issues in the United States. I chose an internship that dealt with food insecurity, a topic about which I feel strongly. I got placed at the ACFB with Fred Conrad, the coordinator of the Community Gardens Program. The ACFB promotes greater food access and inspires good nutrition for all, regardless of financial circumstances. This is particularly important since while government does support food insecure populations, it offers limited assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infant, and Children Program both give low-income, food-insecure families nutritional opportunities through improved access to healthy options through funding, education, and counseling. However, the government allots only certain amounts of funding to these programs, and not all families can be successfully supported.
The ACFB, through enhanced involvement in the community, goes to great lengths to overcome the limitations of these programs. The food bank ensures fresh, wholesome food to those struggling within the community. It constantly seeks out conversations and promotes awareness about issues of food insecurity. In addition, there are many educational opportunities for community members to learn about the importance of eating healthy on a low budget. All of this extends the reach of the government assistance programs.
Throughout the summer, I spent most of my time shadowing Fred. We worked on projects that supported the development of urban gardening centers throughout the Atlanta community. These centers promoted healthy food access to neighborhoods that
lacked supermarkets with nutritious, affordable food options. I worked with volunteer groups to harvest fruits and vegetables for WIC farmers markets where we sold produce to families utilizing nutrition benefit programs. These markets were located in accessible areas, and families came to pick out freshly harvested food at lowered costs.
Everyone involved with the markets seemed excited to enjoy great food. People constantly asked questions about the produce, and I never left without feeling happy to see so many families interested in eating wholesomely. I held passionate conversations about food access, finances, and personal stories that absolutely inspired me to challenge the structure of food distribution in the United States. These families wanted to eat healthy, despite stereotypes often associated with low-income households. The biggest hurdle for these families was finding affordable, high quality food without jumping through enormous obstacles.
In addition to the wonderful work in the gardens and markets, I lived in downtown Atlanta. I often went exploring with other interns, and we were exposed to multiple aspects of poverty throughout the summer. For instance, we noticed the impact of gentrification on neighborhoods surrounding our housing. We lived adjacent to a section of Atlanta called the Old Fourth Ward. This area of the city is known for sex trafficking and higher crime rates. At this point, however, the area is being built up with new condominiums. We walked from one block of expensive apartments into another of run-down trailers with homeless men sitting on the corner. It was an interesting landscape, and we openly viewed places of concentrated poverty. In fact, many of the clients I worked with mentioned the impact of this development on their ability to find affordable housing.
During the summer, the other interns and I also noticed how institutionalized racism influences poverty. Since I was focusing on food security, I quickly realized that most supermarkets are located in more affluent, white neighborhoods. This meant persons of color and limited financial circumstances lacked the same opportunities to access farmers markets, superstores, and other places selling affordable produce. This lack of access directly impacts the health of individuals, and studies show low-income, residents of color in urban centers have elevated rates of chronic disease. Of course, the complications of these diseases bury low-income families with additional problems.
The other interns and I held interesting intellectual conversations about these topics and our internships. It helped sharpen our perspectives in ways the classroom alone could not. It’s one thing to read about poverty and its impact on certain populations; it’s another thing to experience it. I drew many unique connections over the summer, and I left inspired to continue combating poverty after graduating from college.
I encourage others to apply and take this opportunity offered by SHECP. I met amazing people and experienced more than I anticipated. It challenged many perspectives I developed during college. Moving to a new city with strangers felt intimidating, but every second allowed me to blossom into a more understanding individual. Now that I have returned to college, I continue to share these experiences hoping to inspire others to rise up against poverty.
My internship has also helped to shape my career goals, as I plan on attending graduate school for my Masters in Public Health with a focus on food systems. I cannot wait to continue working toward better food access for hungry populations.