By Sam Burnham
I got a bit of a shock the other day when I came across a Rome News-Tribune story that reported that there were over 700 students that were considered homeless in the Rome City and Floyd County school systems. Considering that these two school systems instruct approximately 16,000 students, that's roughly 4% of the student population that is homeless. This sounds like a small number but both of these systems have multiple schools with fewer than 700 students. Technically you could build a mid-sized school in one of these systems with 700 students. That got my attention.
But then my wife reminded me of the homeless student standards. On the first day of school, among all the other paperwork our kids brought home were forms to ask about the housing arrangements of students. These are the forms used to compile the data. There were questions about the parents being employed in agriculture. Questions about the permanence of the students' current living arrangements, and several more. This is how the homeless student totals are compiled. There is different criteria that classifies a student as homeless. So just because a student is classified doesn't mean they are sleeping in a car, a park, or under a bridge. The parent(s) may be migrant workers, there may be a living arrangement with friends or extended family, the students may be living in a county other than the one in which they attend school. So the numbers may be somewhat skewed.
That is not to say there is not a serious problem with homelessness in Georgia.
In 2014 the Macon Telegraph reported that neighboring Houston County had 327 homeless students during the 2013-14 school year. 63% of these students were living with extended family or friends. 25% were living in transitional housing such as motels or RV parks. 12% were living in shelters such as the Salvation Army Safe House or the Duke Avenue Homeless Shelter in Warner Robins.
There was also a 2015 story in the Tifton Gazette that discussed problems in Tift and Effingham Counties. The Gazette highlighted a group called Family Promise, a New Jersey-based organization that works alongside faith-based groups, mostly local churches and volunteers from those congregations. Families are housed in Sunday school classrooms that otherwise sit empty six days of the week. These families receive services that result, according the the Family Promise website, in 74% of the participants finding permanent housing arrangements. Family promise has programs in several Georgia counties, including eight that could be considered rural.
Rural counties in Georgia have a problem with homelessness. It may not be the type of homelessness we usually think about It's easy to buy into the stereotypes of homeless people living under bridges and begging for change in the shadows of Atlanta skyscrapers. It's another thing altogether to think of a kid trying to become an educated adult in a homeless shelter in Tifton or Rincon. That's not to downplay Atlanta's homeless problems, it's just pointing out the reality that it's not just a big city problem.
While there are people rising to the occasion and seeing success in helping people get back on their feet, it's frustrating to know that the economy in rural Georgia is struggling the way these numbers suggest, especially considering our recent story about agriculture is the top industry in Georgia. These rural counties are producing substantially to our economy but it isn't keeping the people who live in these counties out of poverty. And a drive through rural Georgia is often the only research you need to see that poverty is a problem there.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, a typical home in rural south Georgia was more than just a shelter for a family. The typical home was a self-sustaining organism in which a family provided for all their own needs. By today's standards it was still poverty, no doubt about that. But the family raised their food, built their shelter, provided their own entertainment, and, if times were good, had enough to sell or trade for a few luxuries. The humble house was often a one bedroom structure with a loft and a porch. The parents had the bedroom, the daughter slept in the loft away from predators and such, and the sons, if the weather was reasonable, slept on the porch. If the weather was less than cooperative, the boys slept in a common area in the house. The family all worked together to make sure the home worked. Again, not prosperous by our standards but they had a home.
It stands to reason that a century of economic and technological advancement would have improved this model to make it more profitable, more feasible, and more of a reality for the people of rural Georgia. But now we have families, often single mothers and their kids according to the statistics in the articles mentioned earlier, that find themselves in motels or RV parks trying to survive. Our economic model and the expectations of society have changed many homes into simple domiciles that produce nothing but what money can be gleaned from a paycheck earned by working for someone else, if they are fortunate enough to find work in such an economically challenged area. While reality means that not everyone can operate a small business or farm, why is it not a better option for people in rural areas? If Georgia is going to spend thousands of dollars on sports stadiums, worthless streetcars, recruiting programs for major industries, and who knows what all else, why can we not allocate better resources to educational programs to produce workers for our biggest industry? Why do we not work to change the stigmas and expectations within our society that work against the economics of rural Georgia? If we are living in a world of progress why do we find ourselves not progressing?
We need solutions. What we have been trying is not working. And if we consider that the answers to our problems with energy, medicine, food security, food deserts, and the supply of resources that our other industries need to thrive may all be lying in a fallow field in rural Georgia, then we are wasting time. It is ridiculous that the economy in our economic breadbasket is under-performing. That has to change.
Lagniappe! This week we are posting an additional article. This one is from ABG Managing Editor, Leigha Burnham. She is quite capable in the kitchen but recently she has been exploring healthier options with wonderful Southern food. Many of her choices are not necessarily what you might think of as Southern comfort food but, if we're honest, it may be a little more true to the traditions of the agrarian people that created the tastes of The South. Trust me on this one. She ain't lyin' about that okra.
As most of our wonderful readers know, the ABG family loves food. Not just any food, but true Southern-style home-cooking like grandma used to make. But of course, many of us Southerners no longer have agrarian careers or the physical activity of running a farm, which can cause a bit of a problem with our waistlines. I am no exception. In recent months, I've really been trying to make a change in the way I think about food and the way I prepare it, mostly in order to lose weight. In that process, I have come to the realization that my local grocery store (which shall remain unnamed) has about the worst produce ever. The selection is poor, the lettuces are usually dripping wet with that stupid automatic-water-sprayer-thingy, and the tomatoes are just mushy and flavorless.
What to do? Start looking for better produce. I mean, if I've gotta eat 6-7 cups of leafy greens a day, then they need to be packed full of flavor! My husband (and curator of this blog) kindly suggested that I try a local farm. Now I've driven past this farm times too numerous to count. I've commented to my children about all of the vintage equipment sitting out front. I've even "liked" the farm's Facebook page. But...I have never, in my 20 plus years of living in this town, stopped to purchase one thing. There is something really sad about that.
So I asked Sam to take me to the farm yesterday. And it was perfect. A typically hot Georgia day had the young man working the counter sweating in spite of the three ceiling fans running at full speed. There were tables of plywood filled with baskets and crates of the most glorious, brightly colored produce! I immediately reached into the basket of okra and the prickly, somewhat fuzzy, skin brought the childhood memories of picking and cutting okra with my mother back to my mind. And the tomatoes... They were plump, fragrant, and I assure you, their flavor was as tangy as any I've ever eaten. There was something transcendental about the experience of touching and smelling the produce that had just been plucked from the Georgia soil. Something almost holy. It is experiences like this that could keep me on my whole foods eating plan for life.
We returned home with our bounty and I quickly began thinking about the preparation of our evening meal. Most of what we bought, I planned to eat raw, but I had to think of a way to fix that okra. Mother always battered it and fried it. I chose to toss mine in a little olive oil and then roast it at 400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. It was divine.
It felt good to put quality food on my family table. It tasted even better. And the price wasn't that far off from what I pay for that dull, flavorless produce at the grocery store. Produce that is grown in some unknown place, picked far too early, boxed in a warehouse, shipped by trucks, and watered down by my grocer in an attempt to fool me into thinking it is equal to that which I can find fresh from the dirt, about 10 minutes down the road.
My first job out of college was with a corporation with a household name. The position was dealing with higher end food service. It was the type of operation that used chefs and "quality" ingredients. A higher priced operation with some fairly exclusive clientele.
My coworkers were from all over the world. They had left the far reaches of the Earth and worked in other far reaches before this particular stop in the shadows of Atlanta's skyscrapers.
These folks knew good food.
So it caught my attention when I heard one of them comment, "why are we using canned peaches? Isn't this Georgia?"
Peaches weren't out of season. Some of the finest peach orchards in the world were an hour and a half down I-75. And we were using canned peaches. They might even have been from China.
The previous summer I had visited Atlanta. I was in Centennial Olympic Park with a couple thousand people from all over the world. One thing that sticks out in my mind was an exhibit to tell these visitors our story - to introduce us to them. It proclaimed "The South is Agriculture".
It's true. If you can eat it, wear it, smoke it, chew it, turn it into fuel and burn it, we'll try to make it spring from the ground. Agriculture is such a big deal that parts of our agriculture depend on other parts of our agriculture.
And we eat canned peaches from China.
Georgia specifically: we grow peaches, pecans, peanuts, apples, native grapes (muscadine, etc.), Vidalia onions, cotton, corn, soybeans. We raise poultry, beef, pork. And more.
And we eat canned peaches from China.
Earlier I read a Twitter tirade straight out of Tattnall County. It inspired this post. There's a man down there, a Chicken Hippie, if you will. He has this crazy notion that Georgia dirt, fresh Georgia air, and Georgia sunshine will produce quality, tasty, nutritious chicken, duck, quail, & turkey. No crowded chicken houses. (You can find him on Twitter at @GApasturedbirds and on Instagram at grassrootsfarmsga.)
Next time you pass a chicken truck on the highway, take a look at the cargo and see if you agree with him.
Admittedly, I don't buy birds from him. Not right now. He makes his birds available through a distributor and restaurants can offer customers sustainable, locally-grown, pasture-raised poultry. And then they can switch back to Holly Farms and not tell you any different.
Thus the tirade.
Listen to me. This isn't about being a foodie. It isn't about being a hipster. It's about being a Southerner. It's about English settlers founding Georgia on agriculture in 1734. It's about Native American tribes sustaining themselves on this red clay on agriculture seven centuries before the English came.
It's about Georgians not eating canned peaches from China.
And it's about not wondering how a small farmer in South Georgia is selling poultry to restaurants in Atlanta and beginning to wonder why such products aren't widespread in our grocery stores. Why do we settle for less just because it costs a little less?
And Grassroots isn't the only farm like this out there. I know several people raising cattle & crops the old ways. You'll find them if you look.
There's more on this topic but it will have to wait for another time.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire