ATLANTA – Georgia has one of the highest densities of so-called food deserts in the nation, several experts told a state Senate committee Tuesday. 

“One in eight Georgians face hunger, and one in seven are children,” the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Joy Goetz told the Senate Study Committee on Improving Access to Healthy Foods and Ending Food Deserts.  

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, 1.2 million Georgians are facing hunger, including more than 377,000 children.

Food deserts are geographical areas where healthy food is inaccessible or expensive. 

Alana Rhone, who works in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) economic research department, said Georgia has the sixth highest share of low-income areas whose residents also lack adequate access to supermarkets.   

Food insecurity refers to USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.   

The committee was created by a Senate resolution sponsored by state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, which said more than 2 million Georgians, including 500,000 children, live in communities that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, and other foods that contribute to a healthy diet.  

“Study is needed to determine policy and legislative prescriptions for improving access to healthy foods and ending food deserts,” said the resolution, which established the committee to look at any changes that could be made to the state’s tax and economic policies to combat food deserts, and determine how state leaders can assist local governments. 

Goetz said poor food choices – such as choosing high-salt, high-fat foods over fresh fruits and vegetables – contribute to higher health costs throughout the state.   

“Each food-insecure patient incurs $1,863 more per year in medical expenditures,” she said. “Food insecurity costs Georgia $1.78 billion in additional health care costs per year because of more chronic disease treatment, more diabetes hospitalizations and more hospital readmissions.” 

The average cost of a meal in Georgia is $3.04, according to Feeding America’s report on Hunger in America. The Atlanta Community Food Bank is a member of the organization. 

“People facing hunger in Georgia, according to the organization, are estimated to need more than $664 million each year to meet their food needs,” the food bank said.   

“Hunger and food insecurity are widespread in Georgia,” Goetz said. “It causes significant stress to families. It impacts physical and mental health outcomes in all age groups. It impacts developmental and health outcomes in children, and it burdens the economy and society as a whole.”  

Will Sellers, executive director of Wholesome Wave Georgia, said his organization’s goal is to increase access to and awareness of healthy food choices for all Georgians in need through local farmers and community partners.   

The Georgia SNAP Connection program provides free assistance for food stamps and other benefits including Medicaid.   

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.