Jessie B. Denney Tower, a 10-story, low-rise brick building that sits steps from downtown Athens, is an affordable housing community that houses some of the most in-need Athens residents. The building is designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the elderly and people above age 50 who have Social Security disability benefits. Denney Tower is also in a food insecure area, according to the USDA, which categorizes the area as “low income and low access” because the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away.Why It’s Newsworthy: “Food desert” and “food security” are buzzwords used to describe geographic accessibility to food, but the cost of healthy food is a bigger issue. One resident took matters into her own hands to prepare lunch for neighbors using donations.
According to Marilyn Appleby, communications director and property manager at Athens Housing Authority, which owns Denney Tower, the majority of Denney residents have Social Security benefits on the low end. Before retiring and moving into Denney, “they worked physical plant jobs, textile mill jobs, things like that. They always worked, but they worked in lower-wage jobs.” Most residents receive about $650-$850 a month, and 30 percent goes toward rent, Appleby said. At Denney Tower, all utilities are covered, and cable is offered at a half-price discount.
Sometimes, local businesses, organizations or individuals provide donations and meals to the residents, such as the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, Campus Kitchen and American Lunch, a food truck operated by Five Bar Athens. Congregate meals are offered daily at local churches or at the Athens Community Council on Aging for $2-3 per meal. However, many Denney residents feel that a $3 meal every day is not financially feasible.
Prior to this past summer, Denney residents enjoyed socializing over Tuesday lunches of soup, bread, and tea from American Lunch. However, this past June, the truck stopped coming because it needed repairs and volunteers were scarce, Appleby said. Five Bar was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
Although the truck was missed, its absence “created a social responsibility on the part of residents,” Appleby said. Barbara Morgan, a Denney resident of nine years, decided to informally pick up where the truck left off. Using donations from other residents, she cooks a weekly Tuesday meal to be shared with neighbors in the common area in the Denney Tower lobby.
“We look forward to Tuesdays,” Sherry Nesbitt said, a friend of Morgan’s.
A food insecure area is also commonly referred to as a food desert. “A food what?” Morgan said.
The CDC defines food deserts as: “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
Many of the residents of Denney don’t realize that the building is in such an area or don’t find the physical distance to be a barrier to eating healthfully. Morgan has a car, and other residents go shopping with family or use the bus. A bigger barrier to healthy eating is cost. Appleby said Denney residents realize canned foods are less nutritious than fresh produce, but want to stretch their limited incomes as far as possible.
The bottom line is when you’re watching your money, you’re not going to be doing things like buying fresh vegetables,” Appleby said.
In the meantime, American Lunch has fixed the truck and plans to resume service at Denney Tower on Oct. 2.
Christina Conner is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.