Matthew learns about improving nutrition for the residents of Atlanta.
As the 5:30pm bus home rolled into the Woodruff Circle on the campus of Emory University’s School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, the driver winked me goodbye with a look of confused amusement. This look had become a regular occurrence. As a summer intern at the Community Gardens Initiative of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I boarded the bus home to my apartment each day adorned with a sweat-soaked shirt and sunhat, a pair of dirt-caked jeans, and a new mosquito bite or two. Since the rest of the bus crowd consisted of dozens of tired-looking nursing or medical students in scrubs, this look of confused amusement was almost to be expected. But not all health professionals wear scrubs.
We often forget that food is a significant aspect of healthcare as well, just as we often overlook hunger as a symptom of an even greater epidemic. According to the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s website, nearly 17% of Georgia’s population—approximately one in every four children and one in every ten seniors—is food insecure, and the larger issue of food insecurity measures hunger as a deficiency in nutrition as well as in calories. With this in mind, there are lots of hungry people in Atlanta, let alone in the U.S. and the world; they do not have a snack in the fridge, a local farmer’s market to go to, or an easy commute to the grocery store. During my internship, I discovered that these hungry people are just like me. They have family members. They drive cars. They look after younger siblings. But sometimes a family member has a stroke, or the family car breaks down, or a fourth-grader, who normally receives school lunches at a free or reduced rate during the school year, finishes school for the summer. In an instant, priorities change, and the money that normally goes towards purchasing food for the family is allocated towards the more pressing hospital payments and mechanic bills instead. From then on, the family members may not have as much food as they typically have. From then on, the fourth grader does not have a free or reduced-rate lunch. From then on, people who are not normally hungry, are.
The mission of the Atlanta Community Food Bank is to fight hunger by engaging, educating, and empowering the community. Frankly, this is an exceptionally vague mission statement, but it allows the organization to accomplish what it does. In addition to flipping a food inventory of over four million pounds each month, the Food Bank manages school supply donations and promotes community development by providing tools, services, and volunteer group access to community gardens through its Community Gardens Initiative. In doing so, the Food Bank’s mission statement allows the organization to have a massive impact on healthcare in several significant ways, all of which – paradoxically – do not involve the use of scrubs.
The Food Bank is not alone in its fight to eliminate hunger as an aspect of alleviating poverty. The organization relies on contributions from a number of sources, including individuals, businesses, and private foundations in addition to sponsorships and pro bono assistance from government organizations. However, the Food Bank does not provide food directly to those in need. Instead, the Food Bank acquires food through harvests or donations, and these donations are passed on to over 600 food pantries, senior centers, homeless shelters, and other partner agencies that, in turn, directly interact with those in need. Although the Food Bank boasts a paid staff of over 100, the majority of the legwork of the organization is performed by thousands of volunteers each year, ranging from Youthworks participants to corporate groups seeking opportunities to partake in community service outside of the office. As is the case with managing a holistic healthcare system, sometimes it takes more than a bus full of professionals to tackle the issue of food insecurity, let alone poverty.
With this coordinated approach in mind, the work that the Food Bank performs is superb because it emphasizes the importance of helping people help themselves. Of course, giving people nutritious food so that they can be healthy and live their lives epitomizes helping others help themselves, but this principle is present in many other aspects of the Food Bank’s work as well. For example, when neighborhoods decide to establish a community garden, the Food Bank helps, but only to an extent. During my internship, Fred (my supervisor) and I plowed small lots of land to help lay the foundation of a garden, but we didn’t actually organize the creation of the community garden in the neighborhood. The community did that itself. Moreover, Fred and I provided seeds for the gardens, but we didn’t plant them. The community did that. And when it finally came time for the harvest, Fred and I helped, but the communities did most of the picking, washing, sorting, and packing. In short, when it comes to community gardens, the Food Bank provides some of the fuel, but the community provides the spark.
That said, probably the most conclusive insight I gained from interning at the Atlanta Community Food Bank was how much sheer teamwork is required to maintain an effective and multi-faceted crusade on poverty. The work I performed only scratched the surface of what goes on at the Food Bank. While I helped to coordinate volunteers and manage spreadsheet data in addition to washing and packing the produce harvested from community gardens, there are other entire groups of people who pick up food donations from places like Wal-Mart and BJ’s (such as Bavone and Nitasha); load the pallets of food into the vehicles of recipient organizations (Carlito); manage the contact information of the recipient agencies (Christine); coordinate the volunteers in the Product Rescue Center (too many to mention); maintain security (Randall); and direct the employees of the actual organization (Bill, Queie, and others). Physically, the twin warehouses that comprise the Food Bank’s campus are massive, but the hearts of the people who work at the organization itself are even larger.
But they can’t fight hunger alone. As remarkable as the work of the Atlanta Community Food Bank is, Atlanta is a single city in a single state of a single country. Fighting hunger is a team-based effort, and – just as no lone row of vegetables can feed an entire community – no single individual or organization can tackle the issue of food insecurity alone. Part of what makes community gardening such a holistic approach towards eliminating hunger is also what makes it such an insightful perspective on what may be required to alleviate poverty outright. In order to continue to fight hunger by engaging, educating, and empowering the community, hunger must be recognized as a symptom of the worldwide epidemics of food insecurity and poverty, and – as with any health issue – a holistic approach must be taken to find a cure. Municipal, state, and federal governments have taken initiatives through the Food Stamp and SNAP Programs but, while these options have provided access to caloric food, they have only just recently provided low-income individuals, couples, and families with access to the nutritious and locally-grown food found in nationwide farmer’s markets. With this in mind, another step is to recognize hunger as both a caloric and nutritional deficiency and ensure that both issues are resolved on a national scale while enabling communities to play an indispensable role. And we mustn’t forget the difference between helping people outright and helping people help themselves. Only by embodying these insights can we eliminate hunger as an aspect of reducing poverty.
Before this summer, I knew little more than the facts that plants require water and sunlight to grow and that tomato vines smell really good. I had yet to learn that community gardens not only provide nutritious food to communities, but also create nutritional communities. I had yet to gain the insight that food has the ability to unite people not just around a dining table, but also behind a common cause: to make sure everyone has enough healthy and nutritious food to put on the dining table in the first place. And I had yet to establish the faintest idea of where I might want to be in five years. But now I do. I will be graduating in May 2015, and I hope to take the skills and insights I learned this summer to help people help themselves either through AmeriCorps NCCC, the StoryCorps Program, or maybe even back at the Food Bank.
But there is a good amount of time between now and then, and perhaps, just like a community garden, something new and unexpected will sprout up in what had previously been thought to be a neatly organized row. Either way, it is my full intention to continue my own personal and soon-to-be professional involvement in diminishing poverty, and helping others help themselves will be at the heart of it all. Whether or not this will involve scrubs is still yet to be determined, but, upon boarding the bus back home, it will almost certainly involve looks of confused amusement.