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We are what we eat
Local efforts are tipping the scales to correct Savannah's food imbalance.
The first steps: Digging a community garden. At left is Kelly Lockamy, founder of the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance (SUGA).

It’s been a year since the issue of food access became part of the larger local dialogue about improving community health, following a visit to town by food accessibility consultant Mari Gallagher. While there have been improvements since then, there’s still progress to be made.

At the heart of the discussion is a question about how the city’s built environment plays a role in the food choices made by individuals, and how those decisions affect health outcomes for individuals.

“The more the Healthy Savannah Initiative delves into these issues of the built environment, it all kind of melds together,” says Jenny Payne, Citizens Office Director with the City of Savannah and a member of the Healthy Savannah Initiative’s Nutrition Committee. “We know there are things we can do on the local level to improve access to healthy foods and safe physical activities.”

Centered around buzzwords like "food deserts" (areas without access to nutritional foods), national interest in the issue has been piqued over the last five to 10 years, driven largely by ongoing realizations about the obesity epidemic.

The solution is more complicated than selling more veggies, though. It requires a look at the city’s infrastructure, as well as economic and educational opportunities.

While the problem is complex, it could also create a wave of opportunities with potential to re–invigorate the viability of local and regional agriculture as well as create jobs within the city.

Striking imbalance

In July 2009, Gallagher came to Savannah to conduct what she refers to as a “Level One Food Assessment,” analyzing food accessibility in various neighborhoods and scoring them using an equation comparing distance to healthy food options (like grocery stores) versus the distance to “fringe food” establishments like fast food.

What she found was that Savannah has a serious food imbalance. Many citizens have easier access to processed foods than anything nutritious.

“Once you understand the lay of the land, which is what we did last year with Mari, then opportunities for resolving the food deserts can be sought,” explains Payne.

Gallagher’s report was not the final chapter in the issue, more the beginning of another phase. The report gave food advocates concrete geographical data on where their efforts needed to be focused.

“The data from Mari Gallagher’s report says there’s an imbalance. Many people already knew that,” says Bethany Jewel, the chairperson for the Healthy Savannah Initiative’s Nutrition Committee, a group of about 15 volunteers seeking to improve food access in Savannah. “Seeing it visually and having that as a tool is important to convince people and raise awareness.”

Since the release of Gallagher’s report in October 2009, there’s been progress made in several places across the city — not only to improve access to nutritious foods, but also to engage citizens in conversations about their food choices and the effects they might have.

That progress has come about thanks to a mix of public and private efforts, including the Healthy Savannah Initiative, the Savannah Local Food Collaborative, the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance and a national grocery retailer.

Breaking ground

In what will represent a major improvement in the food access landscape, on July 22, the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, City officials and Food Lion will celebrate the groundbreaking of a new grocery store on MLK Jr. Blvd., which will provide better food options along the westside of town, one of the areas identified by Gallagher as having an imbalance.

In October of last year, Food Lion also opened a new location on East DeRenne Ave., another area cited by Gallagher, and according to her data maps, one of the largest unbalanced tracts in the city, which stretched along the east side from the river south beyond DeRenne.

The geographical location of grocery stores might be something that most people would take for granted, but it’s a major component to food access.

A USDA report about food access published in 2009 states that there are 2.3 million people who live more than one mile from a grocery store and without adequate means of transportation.

While increasing the number of grocery stores will help on the local level, many food advocates would also like to see a more homegrown solution as well.

Growing season

“You can grow so much food in such a small space,” says Kelly Lockamy, the founder of the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance (SUGA). “There would be no food shortage in Savannah if all the empty lots were farmed by the neighborhoods that surround them.”

Last spring, Lockamy founded SUGA to formalize her passion for gardening into something that might positively impact the community. So far, she has helped develop three community gardens, one on Tybee, another at the Starfish Café, and the newest, the Growing Edge garden at the West Broad Street YMCA.

Although Lockamy has a green thumb, her mission is not to drive around town farming plots scattered through various neighborhoods. Her goal is to help organize the structure of the gardens, making the startup process easier for those involved and ensuring the garden survives in the long term.

“I organize the gardeners and hold meetings,” she says. “You have to get the organizational structure in there so that the garden will survive the coming and going of different people.”

Lockamy is a strong believer that community gardens offer a lot more than just savings on grocery bills via armloads of fresh produce.

They represent a multi–faceted solution to the issues being confronted by the Healthy Savannah Initiative. Gardens aren’t just about healthy eating, they are an opportunity for exercise and a chance to get to know your neighbors.

“We’re not just out there growing fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re also providing an opportunity to teach and educate and interact,” says Payne. “It’s a gathering place. People start to talk and get educated about what makes a healthier community.”

Even with the incentive of eating better and saving money, Lockamy has found that it can still be difficult to rouse community involvement for gardens because of the hard work involved.

“It’s easy to make a garden,” she says. “The hard part is finding people that want to participate in that garden, work it and produce their own food.”

For those that are willing to put in the work, the benefits are tangible, and for growers with particularly green thumbs, there could be potential to sell vegetables locally as well.

Buy local

The farmers market at Forsyth Park is in the midst of its second season, after relocating there from the Starland District in 2009.

Managed by the Savannah Local Food Collaborative (SLFC), it has played a major role in improving access to organic, locally grown food downtown, as well as providing a valuable outlet for local and regional farmers to sell their goods.

Last August, thanks to a partnership with Step Up Savannah and Wholesome Wave Georgia, the market, which runs every Saturday morning from April through November, has been part of a grant program that doubled the buying power for customers using food stamps — matching their purchase dollar for dollar.

To date, the market has the highest participation rate for food stamp customers of any participating markets in the state, according to Kristen Russell, owner of the Sentient Bean and one of the guiding forces behind the SLFC.

For Russell and SLFC founder Teri Schell, improving access to locally grown foods is an important step toward improving the city’s collective diet.

“The closer you are to the source, the fresher it is when it gets to your plate and the more nutrients there are,” Schell explains.

Beyond the nutrition, in an age where large scale food production has lead to outbreaks of e coli and salmonella from meats and produce alike, locally grown foods also improve food security.

“People have been so removed from what they eat for so long, they don’t have any idea where it comes from,” adds Russell. “If you have a personal relationship with the person who grows your food, then I believe there’s a good chance that grower is more responsible... instead of the corporate system where there’s no responsibility.”

Russell and Schell both chose to become advocates for local food because it’s an issue that has a lot of personal meaning for them: Russell comes from a small farm and Schell’s grandmother grew food as well.

Their dedication has paid dividends — literally and figuratively. They have watched as people have gotten excited about food, and also helped create part time work for young people.

“There are kids that have been helping us and the farmers out. They’re taking home vegetables and cash for working,” says Russell. “That’s improving their family’s health. It’s not a giant number that we’re talking about, but it is making headway.”

The success of the farmers’ market represents progress when it comes to food access, but increasing the number of farmers’ markets across the city isn’t a standalone solution to the problem.

There have to be people who are buying goods at the markets, and correspondingly, there has to be farmers who have produce to sell.

“You can have more farmers’ markets but if no one is coming to them, then it’s not really helping,” says Schell.

As awesome as the local food movement might be, it’s only going to get as far as local agricultural infrastructure can carry it. Several people noted that growth of farmers markets will be limited by the total number of farmers able to participate at any given time.

“There has to be more farmers and we don’t necessarily have that right now either,” Schell adds.

While the shortage of local farmers might seem like an obstacle, for Bethany Jewel it’s a matter of perspective.

She sees the possibility that there could be more farmers markets than farmers as an opportunity, not a problem. For those people who are interested in community gardening, it represents an opportunity to take their goods immediately to market.

“We have a time where you have more demand than you have supply,” she explains. “It’s an opportunity.”

The other green economy

Discussions about the “green” economy have focused largely on renewable energy production, but locally, there may be opportunities to create a more viable distribution model that connects farmers with markets — creating jobs and allowing the farmers to focus on growing produce and increasing yield, rather than on selling their goods.

“A big issue is support for the farmers with distribution. If they’re sitting at the market, those are hours they’re not out in the field,” Jewel says. “Maybe we can think creatively as a community about how can we get someone to be that distribution agent so the farmers can continue growing?”

Bernetta Anderson’s West Bay Market program may be on the verge of finding an answer to that question.
In April the West Bay Street Farmers’ Market, a project of the Ivory Bay Community Development Corporation, became the newest addition to the local produce scene.

While part of its mission is to help provide nutritious foods in an underserved area, its goals for community development run much deeper than healthy eating.

“It’s an urban agricultural project where we’re creating jobs for teenagers,” says Anderson. “We have an organic garden that they’re putting together out back and there’s a compost operation.”

Although they are just now working on building gardens, they have plans to sell produce from those gardens at the farmers’ market. In the meantime, the program is engaging area youth, and providing much needed jobs for teens from across the city.

Every Friday, Anderson takes a group of young people out to Promised Land Farms where they have learned how to choose tomatoes, okra, watermelon and other produce, which they then sell at the market the following morning.

“They give some strange looks when they find out we’re going to the farm,” she says. “Once they get out there, they’re laughing and saying it’s fun.”

During the rest of the week, the kids are working on planning and building the garden beds, as well as studying organic farming and composting.

One recent learning experience came from seeing how mathematics is applied to laying out the garden beds.

“They’re learning a skill – to plant and grow food,” says Anderson. “They’re using some skills they should have for school so when they’re wondering why they’re studying fractions or geometry they can see how to apply those principles to everyday life.”

Expanding on the model being pioneered by Anderson and the West Bay Market youth program could be one of the most comprehensive solutions to a variety of problems at their root – creating jobs and encouraging physical activity and healthy eating habits.

Ripe for the pickin’

There’s no simple solution to food access and nutrition, or the associated struggles against obesity and diabetes.
“Fringe food” establishments can’t — and shouldn’t — just be pushed out of communities using crafty zoning restrictions.

The key is to balance the options conveniently available to people and then provide education about the long term effects of dietary choices.

Solutions must also be localized though, and some efforts will need be adopted and adapted by individuals in specific neighborhoods on a case by case basis.

“I can guess what the issues are in a neighborhood, but until you get out and talk to the people who live there you’re not going to be able to know that,” says Jewel when asked what Healthy Savannah hopes to see happen in food imbalanced neighborhoods. “What we may perceive, as outsiders, is the issue, may not be the issue at all.

Although issues of food access and nutrition won’t be easily changed, within the long–term solutions there are opportunities that have the potential to improve the community as a whole.

If we are what we eat, we just need to eat a little better, and we need to make sure that everyone has space at the table.

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