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Athens Farmers Market's vendors sell a variety of vendibles to the public in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, March 6, 2021.  For those who choose to not have a meal plan, the nearest grocery stores are over a mile away from campus. (Photo/Melanie Velasquez; melanie.velasquez0108@gmail.com)

University of Georgia students living on campus have limited options when it comes to shopping for food. For those who choose to not have a meal plan, the nearest grocery stores are over a mile away. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this classifies the campus as a low-access area for healthy food.

Downtown Athens qualifies as a food desert, or a low-income area where a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the USDA.

For many students and Athens residents, food insecurity is a pervasive issue. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Feeding America, a national nonprofit, reported that in 2018, the people facing food insecurity within Clarke County totaled 20,320, with a food insecurity rate of 16.3%.

Rebekah Won, a freshman public health major living in Hill Hall, canceled her meal plan after two weeks, citing the price. Rather, she relies on carpooling home with her roommate to Suwanee once a week for groceries. Won said without this opportunity, she wouldn’t have access to a grocery store.

Many resources exist for combating individual food insecurities, including the UGA Student Food Pantry on campus and the Athens Farmers Market’s choice to double SNAP, or food stamp, dollars. However, particularly during COVID-19, access to transportation is limited.

Students have few options for transportation — personal vehicles, ride-share programs and public transportation. While many students do drive, only 18,000 semester-long permits were assigned to students, faculty and staff in 2018, according to Todd Berven, interim director of UGA Transportation and Parking Services. The current UGA student body equals 39,147 and the faculty size totals 10,856.

Although both UGA and Athens-Clarke County offer bus systems, transportation to necessary stops near grocery stores may be difficult with switching routes or walking far to stops.

Anna Rogers, a UGA professor of sociology, said using the bus system is also time consuming.

“If you are an undergraduate student taking a full semester of credit hours, it might be difficult to plan out time in your day to be able to take public transportation to go to those places to get healthy fruits and vegetables,” Rogers said.

This uncertainty of transportation to food sources can create additional stressors for students.

Mikell Gleason, a senior lecturer at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, said the implications on public health are numerous.

“It's an ordeal to go to the supermarket. They [people facing food insecurity] do it, but it's an ordeal,” Gleason said. “The amount of stress that has been contributing to other health issues from food insecurity is one part of a lot of other problems. And then you’ve got nutritional problems if people are not eating good food.”

For such a widespread problem, attempting to find a solution can be overwhelming. Rogers said it’s important to focus on raising awareness of food insecurity.

“I do know that for myself personally, just raising awareness is something I try to do so again a lot of people aren’t aware that we have food insecurity in the United States,” Rogers said. “Once we recognize and acknowledge a social problem, only then can we actually start to improve or fix it.”