Retired Couple Fighting Hunger in Athens

Geoff Rushing and his wife Connie have long been concerned about hunger in their community, logging numerous hours volunteering with local homeless shelters and relief agencies.

As they entered their retirement years, the couple saw the problem getting worse, and rather than ease into a life of leisure, they got busy.

In 2018, with limited resources, the Rushings started an organization called City of Refuge Athens. It works to mitigate food insecurity by providing groceries and supplies to families in need, through weekly grocery and household supply distributions.

“A child in food insecurity means that when they leave school on Friday afternoon, they have no idea if they’ll eat again till breakfast Monday morning,” said Connie Rushing.

(Graphic/Kevin Duer)

Food insecurity, the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, in Athens-Clarke County is seriously jeopardizing the wellbeing of many residents.

 Why it’s Newsworthy: According to data published in 2021 by Feeding America, Athens-Clarke County has an estimated 17,330 people, including 3,400 children, that are food insecure.  

With a poverty rate of 27.1%, and a nearly $1 increase in the average cost of a meal over the last five years, many ACC residents have to make the tough decision to either forgo eating or turn to cheap, unhealthy food.

A Life of Service

Rushing, a retired pastor of 22 years, felt a calling outside the church walls, and began volunteering with local organizations such as Bigger Vision and Advantaged Behavioral.

“One of the organizations that we volunteer with did a lot with kids, and what we saw was heartbreaking,” said Connie Rushing.

Geoff and Connie Rushing began running City of Refuge, which they originally called City of Hope, out of their house. For the first seven months, they would get a few friends together weekly to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bologna and cheese sandwiches to distribute.

Now, City of Refuge delivers grocery boxes and food bags to six neighborhoods, and all 26 schools in Athens-Clarke County. That adds up to more than 400 grocery boxes and 1,600 bags of food for children, delivered each week.

The City of Refuge Athens warehouse is packed with food, ready to be sorted and delivered to local residents on Feb. 13, 2024. (Photo/Kevin Duer)

Fueled by Donations

City of Refuge is funded by donations, whether from individuals or organizations such as Publix and the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia. In doing so, Geoff Rushing said it enables them to get more stuff, faster, to the families that are in need.

“We genuinely care, and it matters to me if this lady’s mom was sick, or her daughters struggling in some way, or whatever it is, it matters,” said Connie Rushing.

Geoff Rushing, City of Refuge Athens, Food Insecurity
Geoff Rushing (right) laughs with a volunteer as he prepares a grocery box for donation at the Hanover One Apartments in Athens, Georgia on Friday, February 23, 2024 (Photo/Kevin Duer).

Connie Rushing displayed this care during a City of Refuge distribution event earlier this year. Rushing has been learning Spanish in her free time, and through her thick southern accent, she was able to help several Spanish speaking families to get the groceries and food that they needed.

“I’m no spring chicken, but it keeps me spry,” said Ms. Rushing with a laugh when asked about learning Spanish.

Expanding Operations

This semester, City of Refuge Athens has begun a partnership with UGA and their AmeriCorps program. This program provides interns, paid through AmeriCorps, for City of Refuge Athens, which allows further food distribution efforts to take place.

As both Connie and Geoff said, they have been a huge help.

The Rushings don’t plan on slowing down any time soon. They hope to continue building City of Refuge in the years ahead, anticipating a long struggle to improve access to healthy food.

“I guarantee you, if they did a report right now, food insecurity in Clarke County would be over 50%,” said Geoff Rushing.

Geoff and Connie are now moving into a larger warehouse, with improved facilities. This will allow the pair to be able to accept more donations. Additionally, they have begun an after school tutoring and mentoring program at Gaines Elementary School.

Kevin Duer is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism.

 

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