Hungry in ATLanta By taylor gerlach

When the metal doors of Atlanta's subway slide open, I step out on the platform and search for the familiar red shirts of the nine other youth on my mission team. Our leader, Jeff, shows us a map of where we will be walking to arrive at the homeless shelter, our first destination of the morning. As he finishes up his instructions, he adds, "Did everyone pack a lunch?"

Yes, of course I did.

After waking up on the Salvation Army floor and grabbing some cereal, I had prepared my peanut butter sandwich and apple. Then, I stuck it into a brown paper bag and carefully situated it in my bookbag where it was least likely to get smashed before we stopped for lunch.

"Well," Jeff continues, "We won't be eating today. Each of you will find someone who needs a lunch and give yours away."

Silence. I take a deep breath. The air fills my lungs as I convince myself that it won't be too bad; I never get hungry anyway. I look around at my uneasy team members, and we head out into the unrelenting sun.

Our team traveling through Atlanta's MARTA subway system. Photo courtesy of Corey Milliet.

Four hours later when we would have normally found a city park where we could sit down for lunch, we split up and hand out our lunches to people living on the sidewalk benches, workers on their lunch break, and anyone who will accept our offer of a free lunch.

Six hours after our "lunch break" (and eleven hours since we have eaten last, not that anyone in our group was counting) we congregate back at the Salvation Army center after watching a court session and picking up trash along the streets. We can't help but talk excitedly about the tacos another group is making for dinner tonight. We've had a few hangry moments, but the idea of dinner only one hour away keeps us going.

"Let's go for a walk," Jeff says abruptly. We follow Jeff outside of the Salvation Army center, away from the taco dinner about to be served. I desperately want to know where we are headed. Walking through the adjacent neighborhoods, I am acutely aware of how much our group stands out as trucks blasting rap slowly roll past and people smoking on their front steps ask us if we are lost.

“Do you kids know where you are?” A man calls from the couch on his front porch, erupting into laughter at the sight of us.

"Good evening," Jeff replies, "Thank you; we aren't lost. But could you tell me where the closest grocery store is? Somewhere that I can buy bananas and apples?"

The friendly neighbor, still laughing in disbelief, points us to the top of the hill, mentioning a green building where groceries are sold.

Walking through the streets of inner-city Atlanta, away from the long-anticipated taco dinner. Photo courtesy of Corey Milliet.

At the top of the hill, there is no green building. So we keep walking. After asking a few more people and walking a few more miles, we stand in an empty parking lot facing a dark concrete building. The sign out front reads “FOOD MART” in fading red letters. Occasionally the sound of scraping metal and a huffing engine pass as a car rolls along the road on its way home from work. Aside from the lonely travelers, the grass growing through the pavement cracks is the only sign of life.

Approaching the building with curious caution, we enter through the gaping opening that once held a door. Inside, my eyes slowly adjust to the dim interior, but I am still unable to understand my surroundings. An overwhelming scent of musty cigarette smoke fills my head. Taking a few timid steps forward, I discover six more doorways with missing doors arranged around the center room. Dark piles of unidentifiable matter sit along the walls. I step over trash with each move forward. Peering inside one of the rooms, I see two burly dark men sitting on cardboard boxes with their heads down. Another man silently pushes past our group and enters another room further down. I begin to realize that if this was ever a food mart, it is no longer one. This is no longer a place I need to be in.

My team quickly files back out into the fading summer sun.

Pausing to play a game with kids in Cleveland Avenue neighborhood as we pass through. Photo courtesy of Corey Milliet.

“I don't know what that was, but it was not a food mart. Maybe it's that door right there,” Connor, a teammate, suggests, as he points to the (still attached, thankfully) door of the building adjacent to the one we just came from.

I push open the door, and the smell of alcohol slams into my face. A few cracked booths sit to my right, and a dimly lit bar faces me. The two men perched on the bar stools turn to face us with questioning eyes. A middle-aged woman with too much makeup painted on her face walks over to us as we stand in the doorway, unsure of what to do.

“Would you like a seat?” She asks.

“Uh, no thanks,” I respond, desperately trying to get a bearing on my surroundings. “We’re just looking for the food mart,” I finally explain as she takes in the odd sight of ten teenagers in matching filthy red shirts standing in her bar.

“Oh honey, the food mart is gone. Whatever you do, don’t go in the building next door,” she warns with concern. Oh well, too late; been there, done that. “Just keep going down this street and you’ll see a light green building. That’s the food mart,” she continued.

Thanking her, we shuffle back out the door, leaving the confused bartender and customers behind. At this point, we’ve been told about who knows how many food marts, and I am beginning to lose patience. Never mind the nagging headache from lack of food.

Taking time to be silly on the subway. Photo courtesy of Corey Milliet.

Half a mile later, I finally stand in front of a concrete food mart. I drown in questions. Why are we here? How far have we walked? What time is it? Will we be back in time for tacos?

"Now go inside, find the cost of 10 fruits, 10 vegetables, milk, bread, and one pound of meat, and come report back to me" Jeff instructs us, and we push open the metal bars on the door.

Smiling at the cashier behind the gas station-style glass separator, my eyes swivel around to take in the display of lottery tickets and magazines to my left, the three chest-height aisles placed in the middle of the concrete floor, and the refrigerator case on the far wall. Turning to my right, I look for fresh produce in the fluorescent lights of the produce refrigerator. At first glance, I know something is wrong; something is different. I don’t remember the lights shining through so brightly or the stark white of the bin’s plastic bottom showing through at my local Harris Teeter. 4 lonely green peppers and 4 abandoned tomatoes stare back at me. They are an island of green and red floating in a sea of bright, empty white.

Moving from the shockingly bare produce shelves, we set about to find the other items on our list. We split up among the three short aisles of bagged chips, crackers, and snacks. Behind the foggy glass of the refrigerator case, we finally find a milk jug, but the price is not listed anywhere.

“Okay,” I regroup our tired, hungry, sweaty gang, “they have to have bread somewhere.” I walk down the final aisle. A package of hamburger buns lays on the metal shelf, but a simple loaf of bread is nowhere to be found.

Unable to find bread, fresh meat, enough produce, or any price tags, we return unsuccessfully to Jeff.

"You are in a food desert," Jeff explains. We had walked miles with empty stomachs to find a grocery store, and the inside was bleak. To say the least, we were frustrated. Hangry even.

Zeus, a resident of the food desert who befriended me. Photo courtesy of Natalie Gunen.

Standing in the summer sun with my stomach growling outside that food mart, I glimpsed the struggle of eating healthy when a neighborhood lacks large grocery stores or farmers markets. I had heard of food deserts in my community before, but I had never experienced the sinking feeling of standing in a grocery store with next to nothing on its shelves for sale. I realized that even in developed countries and big cities, there are areas where food is hard to come by, even for customers who can afford to purchase it.

Goodnight, Atlanta. Here's to sleeping with full stomachs and happy hearts. Photo courtesy of tpsdave.

Credits:

Created with images by tpsdave - "atlanta georgia city"

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