Food insecurity in Georgia is huge, and a Senate bill hopes to bring parties together to figure out how to fix it
- Georgia is rife with food deserts. About 22% of the state’s 10.9 million residents live in an urban area that is more than one mile from a grocery store, or in a rural area more than 10 miles from a grocery store.
- There are concerns that rural areas are an afterthought for 'legislators, agencies and funders' regarding food security.
- SB 177, the Food Insecurity Eradication Act, will look at improving access to healthy foods and ending food deserts across the state.
A two-year effort to tackle food insecurity in Georgia may be coming to fruition. The General Assembly is now moving on SB 177, a bill to create a Food Security Advisory Council that would find ways to get more healthy food to economically disadvantaged people in underserved areas.
It began in early 2021, when Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, spurred by the closing of grocery stores in low-income areas of his district, pushed through legislation to set up a Senate study committee to look at improving access to healthy foods and ending food deserts across the state. As chair, he convened several meetings that fall, featuring major players in the food sector, including farmers, food bank execs, economic development experts and leaders of state and federal agencies that provide food and nutrition education to children, seniors and needy families.
“I thought that I could fix it, that we could do a bill on tax credits for grocery stores, and they’ll come running,” Jones told State Affairs. “And maybe we could do a deal with farmers’ markets to get more fresh food to places that don’t have it.”
What he learned was that the issues and market forces that make getting good, healthy food to the Georgians who most need it are “complex and layered.” For one thing, he said, he and other legislators “didn’t really understand the difference between food deserts and food insecurity, which you really have to get a grip on to have the kind of impact we hope to have.”
Food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. Food insecurity is the consistent lack of food to have a healthy life because of your economic situation, driven by poverty, lack of affordable housing and chronic health conditions, among other factors.
“They’re integrally related, of course, but we have to grapple with both circumstances in order to make progress,” said Jones. “And what we’ve learned from the study committee is that we need to bring together all the experts and stakeholders who constantly deal with these issues, who don’t always agree with one another, and let them kind of work through it, and come up with solutions. And then we need to get some serious state buy-in on legislation, including funding, to solve these problems.”
Where’s the bread?
Georgia is rife with food deserts. About 22% of the state’s 10.9 million residents either live in urban areas that are more than one mile from a grocery store, or in rural areas more than 10 miles from a grocery store. And poverty factors heavily in the lack of food access. Alana Rhone of the USDA’s economic research department told legislators that Georgia has the sixth-highest share of low-income areas in the country where people also lack adequate access to groceries. More than 2 million people in Georgia, including 500,000 children, live in these low-income and low-access areas, located in both urban and rural areas across the state.
Food insecurity and consumption of nutrition-poor food, such as high-salt, high-fat foods, cost Georgia $1.78 billion in additional health care costs each year and increase the risk for a number of chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, osteoporosis, obesity and cancer, according to Joy Goetz, an expert with the Georgia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Last week, when SB 177, the Food Insecurity Eradication Act, was discussed during the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee meeting, some of the strain among the various public and private entities whose leaders are likely to be appointed to the 15-member council to be created by the bill was apparent.
Jones discussed the need for the council to take up regulatory reform at some state agencies, including the Georgia WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program Women, Infants, and Children) program within the state Department of Public Health (DPH), which provides healthy food, baby formula and nutrition education to 185,000 participants each month. He said some grocery store operators reported that they were stymied in their efforts to open new stores in underserved areas due to stringent regulations and red tape that made them wait from a few months to a year to get a WIC license.
His observations were reinforced by Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, who said the profit margin of grocery stores and supermarkets is typically below 2% and that many store owners can’t afford to wait for months and miss out on revenue from WIC-related sales. She said the state WIC program’s policy of only issuing licenses at certain times of the year, and not issuing licenses to grocers until they’ve held a SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as Food Stamps] license for one year, were particularly burdensome.
Kuzava told State Affairs that “both SNAP and WIC are absolutely vital components to running a successful grocery store, particularly in regions where customers are low income. … If you’re trying to attract business, you want to be able to take care of 100% of your customers from day one. So if their customers have to shop somewhere else to use the benefits, they’re not going to get that store up and running like it should be.”
DPH Communications Director Nancy Nydam told State Affairs this week that “WIC no longer has a policy that requires grocery stores to have held a SNAP permit for at least one year or previous grocery industry experience for one year.” She said the current requirement “is in line with federal regulations that require the existence of a SNAP permit in good standing with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) in order to be authorized as a Georgia WIC grocer.”
Tension between dollar stores and full-service grocery stores also emerged during the study committee sessions, and surfaced at the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last week.
Tom Coogle, president of Reynolds Foodliner, which operates Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in many rural and low-income areas of Georgia, told legislators in 2021 that a “huge number of dollar stores opening up” was a threat to independent grocers who “are trying to draw from a larger footprint” in underserved areas, and that dollar stores offering milk and other food products cut into their business, which operates on a thin 1.75% profit margin.
Grocery store operators and economic development and nutrition experts continue to voice their concerns about the economic and health problems that dollar stores present. DeKalb County has maintained a moratorium on new dollar stores since 2019 in an effort to encourage grocery stores and supermarkets offering fresher, healthier foods to set up shop.
“There are only so many people in a small community,” said Kuzava. “And all those people want a large grocery store. But a community has to have enough business to support a large store. And grocers come in and do an assessment to see if there’s enough volume there. If there are too many stores close by selling food, whether it’s a dollar store or a drug store — because everybody’s in the food business now — a grocer doesn’t go into that area.”
Rurals outside Atlanta left to fend for themselves
Meanwhile, Deidre Grim, executive director of Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah, said she is concerned that rural areas in general are an afterthought for “legislators, agencies and funders who are addressing nutrition security. It doesn’t trickle down to the coast like it needs to. It doesn’t go very far past Atlanta.”
Grim noted that their business provides a robust market for local farmers, generating $1.2 million in annual sales last year, including about $74,000 of food offered at half-price to SNAP customers. And while their mobile food truck serving hundreds of elderly and low-income residents in Chatham County currently receives $125,000 a year in federal USDA grant funding, “we don’t get a dime from the state.”
“We have a ton of agencies, organizations and nonprofits working tirelessly to make sure that Georgians have healthy food in their bellies, but due to a lack of coordination, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table,” said Dr. Amy Sharma, executive director of Science for Georgia, a nonprofit advocating for the responsible use of science in public policy, who spoke in support of the bill in a Senate committee last week.
“We have gaps in some places, overreach in others … How do we support our Georgia Grown farmers in getting food to people? How do we get people the funds to buy food? How do we educate people on what they want to eat? If they see a vegetable they’ve never seen before, it might be delicious, but let’s give them info on how to cook it. This bill addresses all these things.”
Danah Craft, the executive director of Feeding Georgia, part of a statewide network that includes eight regional community food banks, said she is hopeful the food security council can leverage the expertise on hand to come up with creative solutions to address food insecurity.
Demand at Feeding Georgia’s food banks is 20% above pre-pandemic levels, she said, “a function of the high inflation, food and fuel prices that people are experiencing right now that are really squeezing low-income families.” The organization’s food banks and more than 2,000 partner pantries distributed 127 million meals to food-insecure Georgians in 2019, 171 million meals in 2020 during the height of the pandemic emergency, and 161 million meals in 2022.
Craft said food banks are trying to help Georgia farmers, who last year donated more than 30 million pounds of fresh “ugly produce,” or misshapen fruits and vegetables not aesthetically pleasing enough for the retail market, to move their goods to local food pantries, mobile food trucks and other partner venues where people in need of fresh and free food can get it.
“There’s a lot of surplus food, and the issue is always that people are in one place and the food is in another. And how to move it quickly and safely into communities where it’s needed has always been the puzzle and the logistics challenge that food banks have placed themselves in the center of,” she said.
Craft said she hopes the state food security council, if it’s greenlighted, will look at promising state and federal programs that could be replicated and expanded. That includes a federal Farm to Food Bank program that currently provides a grant to states covering half the cost of packing and transporting food, which food banks have to match. The Georgia Department of Human Services recently won a $164,000 grant for that program, as well as federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act that will pay for “last mile” distribution of fresh and perishable food, providing infrastructure like refrigerated coolers to food pantries, to keep food from spoiling before it can be delivered.
Craft credits Gov. Brian Kemp for putting $800,000 in the fiscal year 2023 and 2024 budgets to support the state’s Farm to Food Bank program, which provides funds for food banks to buy surplus food from Georgia farmers. The program has allowed food banks to offer premium produce to clients that normally isn’t donated, such as citrus, sweet corn and collard greens.
“If we can get the state and private entities to invest more in building out the capacity of our food network in areas that are hard to reach, that would be a great outcome,” Craft said.
Jones said he’s also interested to see if the council can come up with innovative ideas to transport food. He said a short-lived program that rideshare service Lyft offered in Atlanta in 2019 to take food insecure people to and from grocery stores for $2 per trip “caught my eye. That didn’t pan out, but I’d love for the council to look at it again.” (Doordash, it turns out, is now partnering with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to deliver food to local pantries and other community partners).
“The strategy behind the council is to bring together all these people and entities, public and private, that are active within different spaces in food insecurity, and to get these experts talking to each other, and drafting legislation,” said Jones. “They’ll also help us to direct funding, to make sure it’s going to the right places. And then we as a state government will have to step up and buy into what they propose to fix these issues.”
SB 177, the Food Insecurity Eradication Act, passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee on Tuesday, and awaits action in the House Rules Committee.
If the bill passes before Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session on March 29, and is signed by Kemp, the Georgia Food Security Advisory Council will be created within the Department of Agriculture and the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House will be charged with appointing its 15 members.
Have questions, comments or tips about food insecurity or food access in Georgia? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on @journalistjill or at [email protected].
Header image: Georgians experiencing food insecurity are seeking out free food from food banks at rates 20% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Credit: Feeding America)
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$69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’
Tammy Joyner and photographer Brandon Franklin hit the road with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) for the Black farms tour. There were so many great pictures, we decided to share the tour with you. Enjoy!
And check out our Q&A with Chairman Carl Gilliard and an agriculture perspective on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget vetoes.
“Make the farm work and serve the community.” — Addis Bugg, Sr., Addis Farm
Joyner and Franklin traveled with the GLBC to several Black-owned farms, including Roberts Vineyard, Addis Bugg Farms, Paul Copeland Farms and Living Waters Farms. They concluded the tour with the “At the Table Roundtable” discussion event with Georgia farmers at Fort Valley State University.
Can you spot the bull?
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: John Deere combine at the state-of-the-art agricultural research facilities at Fort Valley State University. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
All images and video by Brandon Franklin.
Read more on the ag industry by Tammy Joyner.
Q&A: Even the Energizer Bunny is no match for Carl Gilliard
State Rep. Carl Gilliard has been running at a fast clip for nearly four decades, juggling a ministry, making music and movies, writing books, feeding the hungry, hosting talk shows and performing community activism.
As a teenager, Gilliard founded a local rap group in Savannah to fight gun violence. By the time he was a student at Morris Brown College, the late civil rights activist the Rev. Hosea Williams was his mentor. His activism also put him in the sphere of other influential civil rights icons: the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Ralph Abernathy, and Coretta Scott King.
Gilliard later went on to become a minister himself as well as an author, radio show host and head of a multimedia group that produces documentaries on history. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed the state representative from Garden City to the Georgia Film Commission in 2019.
Gilliard sits on eight legislative committees, including appropriations, creative arts and entertainment, and transportation.
In January, Gilliard ascended to a critical leadership post in the Georgia General Assembly: chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC), the largest caucus of Black lawmakers in the nation.
In that role, Gilliard is determined to get Black farmers solidly entrenched in Georgia’s $69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” the 59-year-old is fond of saying.
Caucus member Sen. Gail Davenport, D-District 44, marveled at Gilliard’s energy. “I don’t know how he gets it all done. He’s busy,” she said. “He has led the caucus very well. He knows South Georgia very well and certainly here in the General Assembly, he has been an effective leader. He works to make sure the Senate understands the position of the House and the House understands the position of the Senate as far as the Democrats are concerned.”
As caucus chairman, Gilliard has made Black farmers and other Black businesses, access to credit, affordable housing and medicine top priorities.
But Black farmers are close to his heart. He recalled years ago when Georgia lawmakers gave millions of dollars to pecan farmers after tornado-ravaged storms damaged their pecan trees.
“We did a bill to give them money. Then we called a special session just to appropriate more money,” said Gilliard, who served on the Appropriations Committee at the time. “Unfortunately, Black farmers were not a part of [getting] that [money].”
State Affairs spoke to Gilliard about his role as chairman, what he intends to do to help Black farmers, and his other top priorities.
How do you see your role as chairman?
As chairman, I’m blessed to be able to walk in the leadership of 74 great senators and representatives from across the state. We represent the melting pot of Georgia.
What has been the biggest takeaway in your first five months as chairman?
Being able to hear from the members and their diverse communities. When we look at the big picture, we have more in common than not in common. That is the reason we did the GLBC rollout in reference to legislation because those are some of the things you hear in communities across the state.
You head the nation’s largest caucus of Black legislators. What are the economic and social issues impacting Black Georgians and how is the caucus poised to address those issues?
The needs of Black Georgians are just like what we went through when the recession hit. Everybody on Wall Street got bailed out while the people on Main Street got left out.
We are constantly playing catch-up. We’ve got to do more: continue education, start more businesses, be able to get a fair share of [state] contracts and be able to deliver services so that we can have generational wealth for future generations.
Black Georgians also have to be included in the top levels of [Georgia’s] $4.4 billion film industry. So the focus is to look at legislation that gives inclusion to levels of opportunity in film.
We must also try to get more Blacks into the business side of film, in reference to the creative opportunities of making and producing films and soundtracks.
Some people feel now that we’re in a post-racial era, there’s no need for a separate caucus for Black legislators. Thoughts?
There will always be a need for a Black caucus in Georgia. There’s always been a need since 1868 with “The Original 33” senators and state representatives who were [initially] not allowed to take office. Fourteen of them were lynched and killed. They had to go through unscrupulous challenges. We still face those challenges when we are in the minority, and we’re trying to get legislation passed for the people who are still facing obstacles. Across the nation, there will always be a need for Black caucuses because of the consensus of the people we represent. We represent over 3 million [Black] people in Georgia.
Who are Georgia’s Black farmers?
When people think about farmers, 99% of the time they just think about those who grow. But you have farmers who have land. You have farmers who have cattle. We even have farmers today [whose business ranges from] cattle to produce to hemp. They just don’t get an opportunity to [publicly] share all that they produce.
Having the resources to upgrade and getting the materials and equipment they need — that’s the biggest need.
They don’t have the workers to help with these farms. And they don’t have the money to hire. They’re just trying to survive. So there has to be a connection to workforce development to help them. The state has workforce development programs that may be able to help some of these farmers. Here again, it’s about us being innovative enough to use what we have to help them.
Have you talked to Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper about your concerns?
Well, we’re going to be talking with the new agriculture commissioner. We’ll give him a chance to get in the door [of his new job] first. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt to say, ‘Let’s meet.’ This will better Georgia because agriculture is the No. 1 entity in Georgia.
What’s the caucus’ next step as it relates to Black farmers?
We’ll push for a bill that would create the Georgia Racial Equity in Agriculture Act. It would establish an Office of Equity in Agriculture, provide training for farmers of color and other historically-underserved farmers and ensure equal distribution of federal aid from the Inflation Reduction Act and Promoting Precision Agriculture Act. And we are gathering information to establish a Georgia Black farmers directory to list all of the farmers who are currently in the state to get them support from consumers as well.
Aside from Black farmers, what are the caucus’ other priorities?
Health care for all Georgians. Looking at the criminal justice system and people who are unfairly on probation for long periods of time when they have a misdemeanor. Some people are still on probation after 20 years. We’ve got to look at different elements of the criminal justice system to see what is fair and what needs to be updated.
We need to make sure we have a fair shake in the minority participation of state contracts. If we’re 30% of the population, then those contracts need to look like the representation of the 30% of minorities in Georgia.
What are some of the events the caucus has planned?
On June 7, we have the Young Leaders Conference at the Capitol for high school and college students. The caucus’ annual conference will be in Savannah July 21 to 23 and we have several for-the-people rallies coming up in Athens, Augusta, Macon and Valdosta. Lastly, we have a Black university tour the first week of September at several Black universities in Georgia.
The Carl Wayne Gilliard File
- Title: Chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus; Democratic state representative, District 162 (Savannah)
- Age: 59
- Hometown: Savannah
- Residence: Garden City
- Occupation: Pastor of Family Life Center in Garden City which operates the Empowerment Center, a program that “gets people on their feet and helps them with everything from housing to credit.” He also has a nonprofit, Feed the Hungry, that has distributed about 1.5 million servings of food in 10 cities in Georgia and four in South Carolina.
- Education: Graduate of Morris Brown College; Doctrine of Divinity from the New Generation School of Seminary.
- Career: While in college, worked as the national youth coordinator for then-presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Became a minister in 1995. Sworn in to the Georgia House of Representatives on May 5, 2016.
- Accomplishments: In the mid-1980s, he founded the Savannah-based rap group Candy Love to combat gun violence. Creator of four national gospel plays. Host of a radio talk show in Savannah as well as gospel TV shows. Founder of Feed the Hungry Inc. in 2009. In 2012, he launched a multimedia communication company called Urban Media and the Gilliard Foundation, which produce documentaries and television specials on history. Author of an upcoming book “Power of the Pen.”
- Family: Married father of four daughters
- What do you do to relax: Watch sports. I am a writer and a filmmaker who does documentaries.
- What’s your ultimate dream? Having a farm.
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: State Rep. Carl Gilliard touring Bugg Farm in Pine Mountain, GA. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
A default on the country’s debt could cause ‘real and lasting’ damage
The nation’s politicians are considering a voluntary default on the country’s debt. Yes, “voluntary.” The nation’s elected leaders in Congress and the White House could end this today if they wanted. Unfortunately, they are choosing to engage in political brinkmanship in negotiations over the debt ceiling, potentially defaulting on the nation’s debt.
In a straightforward sense, the debt ceiling is created by enacting legislation in which Congress temporarily limits the degree to which federal government expenditures can exceed tax revenue. The shortfall is covered by issuing treasury bills, notes and bonds. On an annual basis, the difference is referred to as the deficit, while the accumulation of the yearly deficit is referred to as the national debt, which is now $31.5 trillion. It fundamentally means that the government needs to take in more tax revenue to pay its bills. The first debt ceiling was created by Congress in 1917, so this is a familiar thing.
The general timing of when the debt ceiling is hit can be forecasted with relatively high accuracy, so this problem is unsurprising. Congress had months and months to address this but instead chose to act like children pretending that some inevitable outcome and day of reckoning for irresponsible behavior is now somehow a surprise. The Treasury Department began using “extraordinary measures” back in January when the usual and customary flow of tax revenue was insufficient to pay the bills. The Treasury Department has some ability to create months of budgetary wiggle room through fiscal creativeness that mostly boils down to suspending the reinvestment of revenue generated in some federal government pension or caretaker accounts.
That wiggle room is now gone. The so-called X-date, when even the extraordinary measures fail to cover the bills coming due, is now estimated to be June 1. This date has been moved forward several months because tax revenue is running about 10% below that of the previous fiscal year. The reason is mainly attributable to the slowdown in capital gains tax revenue from realized gains in the stock and housing markets.
Should our elected representatives choose to voluntarily default on the nation’s debt because of their unwillingness to compromise on political dogma in the negotiations over the debt ceiling, well, let’s say bad things will happen. Extraordinarily bad things. Global financial markets will be shaken to their core. The interest rate on the 90-day Treasury bill is referred to as the risk-free rate of return because, under normal circumstances, the government will not go out of business in the next three months. A vast array of domestic and global interest rates is benchmarked to the risk-free rate of return established by the interest rate on short-term U.S. government debt. When that rate is no longer risk-free, everyone will pay higher interest rates on all borrowings, including credit cards, auto loans, mortgage rates, and multi-billion dollar capital investments like those in Georgia’s budding electric vehicle industry.
At a minimum, the federal government would need to decide which bills coming due would be paid, thereby creating a class of winners and losers regarding who gets paid and when. Fundamentally, the tradeoff is between trying to calm financial markets by paying the interest due on debt versus mitigating the severity of the default-induced recession. The optics are not good if Treasury makes winners out of bondholders, and 25% of that debt is held overseas, and makes losers out of older people relying on their Social Security payment.
In the long run, when a government defaults on its debt, it faces much higher interest rates in the future when borrowing again in global capital markets. Greece in 2012 and 2015 is a case in point. When Greece effectively defaulted, investors demanded higher interest rates to compensate for the increased risk on Greek bonds. The 10-year rate on Greek bonds skyrocketed to 35% from about 4% and remained elevated for eight to nine years.
Hopefully, our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., will acknowledge the real and lasting damage a default of the world’s largest debtor nation would cause now and in the future. We’ll be back at this in a few years when the next debt ceiling cap is again under siege.
Michael Toma, Ph.D., is the Fuller E. Callaway professor of economics in the Parker College of Business at Georgia Southern University in Savannah. He specializes in macroeconomics and regional economics and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He joined Armstrong State University in Savannah in 1997 and continues with Georgia Southern University today. He can be reached at [email protected].
How to be your own lawyer in Georgia (and when you shouldn’t)
In his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers, judges and others assembled for the joint legislative session about challenges the state faces in providing access to justice for Georgians.
The first is an “astounding” backlog of civil and criminal cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said will take some county and state courts years to catch up on. The second is a statewide shortage of lawyers.
Fulton County alone has 4,000 pending indicted felony cases, and 14,000 unindicted felony cases, Boggs said.
Defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, or even years. In Dougherty County, more than 200 people who’ve been charged but not convicted have been in jail for more than two years.
As for judicial access, of 159 counties in Georgia, 67 have 10 or fewer licensed practicing attorneys, and seven — all rural counties — have none at all.
Boggs said the legal workforce shortage significantly impacts civil cases such as divorces, child custody and eviction proceedings. He also noted that there is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases. “The basic right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” said Boggs.
One imperfect solution to this lack of legal representation is for people to represent themselves.
It’s not a new practice — people have done it for decades, from contract disputes in small claims courts to major felonies in superior courts. In 2021, 1.1 million people led their own cases in criminal and civil courts in Georgia.
But the outcomes aren’t always good. Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said in 2017 that self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge, are more likely to lose their cases, and tend to slow down court proceedings.
Since then, the Access to Justice Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia has led a statewide effort to create more resources to help people of low and middle incomes to represent themselves better, and to make courts more user-friendly, including an expansion of online legal resources.
Georgians can now access free legal forms based on Georgia code, related how-to videos and detailed instructions for common legal matters in family law, probate law (such as wills, guardianship and estate settlement), landlord-tenant law, advance health directives and name changes.
Most county courts have some online forms, as well as physical law libraries with printed forms and legal research materials available to the public.
Over the past five years, more than a dozen libraries around the state have expanded to become legal self-help centers staffed by paralegals or other trained personnel who can walk people through the maze of forms and explain how to complete and file a legal document properly. Nancy Long is one such legal “navigator,” working at the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center in Dougherty County in Albany. Southwest Georgia has many counties considered to be legal deserts, including four with no active, licensed lawyers.
Long, a paralegal, said many people come into the center “afraid and intimidated by the legal system, and we help them figure out the forms and the legal terms, explain what things mean, and guide them through the system.”
Recently the center helped a man who wanted to legally acknowledge his child so the child could inherit from him. The staff provided information about the legitimation process, and he successfully represented himself in court.
The Southwest Georgia center also has tech set up for people to attend court hearings remotely via Zoom, which enables many residents without internet to access the courts and legal counsel in other cities.
A Word of Caution
When it becomes clear that someone can’t handle their case themselves, either because of literacy issues or the case is too complex, Long said the staff refers people to a list of attorneys in the area, some of whom are willing to represent clients for free or at a reduced cost. One such pro bono attorney is Vicky Kimbrell, who leads the family law unit for Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit serving low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta. Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves a similar clientele within the five-county metro Atlanta area.
“Pro se” or self-representation is better suited to uncontested divorces, said Kimbrell. “It works best when you have some agreed-upon structure, and when you file the divorce, both parties can agree and sign acknowledgments. People can walk through that pretty simply.”
The website of the Judicial Council provides comprehensive legal packets for divorces with and without children, and includes eight videos that explain how to complete the complex child support calculator worksheets.
“In a disputed custody case, that’s not enough,” said Kimbrell, who also serves on the Judicial Council’s Access to Justice committee and has helped to develop self-help resources for family law cases, including uniform legal forms for divorce that are accepted in courts statewide.
“If you’ve got a couple of kids or a house, it gets really complicated. If your husband has a lawyer and you don’t, and you’re standing in court, and whether or not you get custody of your kids depends on how you can maneuver this court process, that’s a scary place to be,” she said, advising people to seek out pro bono or low bono counsel in those cases.
People who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking and who need a temporary protective order (TPO) should call one of the legal aid programs or the domestic violence hotline, said Kimbrell. “It’s pretty dangerous to file your own TPO, and these are the kinds of cases that we prioritize.”
|SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS IN GEORGIA|
|More than 1 million Georgia residents represent themselves in civil and criminal courts
each year. Here’s the breakdown of self-represented litigants in Georgia courts in 2021.
|Source: Judicial Council of Georgia|
Kimbrell noted that legal aid organizations take on clients with household incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $29,160 for an individual and $49,720 for a family of three. Cobb County Magistrate Judge Tabitha Ponder, who also serves as staff attorney for the Georgia Judicial Council’s Access to Justice Committee, advises people to “try using free legal resources first, before making a decision to represent yourself.”
She said self-represented litigants do well in small claims court, where they often face other pro se parties. But she considers them at a disadvantage when trying a case against someone who has a lawyer. That distinction is most notable in dispossessory cases, she said.
“Most landlords are represented by counsel,” she said. “And I would say 90 to 95% of the tenants are not represented. And sometimes, sitting on the bench, I see they have legal arguments they can make, and there are some things they may be entitled to, but as a judge, our hands are tied; we can’t give advice from the bench. And this is important for folks who are facing evictions because our eviction process is really quick.”
In Cobb County, tenants fending for themselves can take advantage of mediators and free legal aid attorneys who are always present in the courtroom during eviction cases.
“We’ve got a person there to speak with both parties and see if they can work out an agreement,” said Ponder. “And the [tenants] can get some sound legal advice. So that’s extremely helpful. What I’ve found with self-represented litigants is that most of the time, these folks don’t require a lawyer to represent them in person. They just need some advice and some resources to help them … it’s usually just one or two issues or questions on a form that they struggle with.”
Lawyers offering “limited scope” or “unbundled” services who are willing to take on just the part of a case that a person can’t handle for themselves can be the key to success or failure for a pro se litigant, she said. “Unbundling really works, and it’s something we need to see more support for statewide.”
Cobb County also offers a free monthly family law workshop via Zoom covering divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation. The workshop is mandatory for self-represented litigants, who can ask a family law attorney general questions via the chat, and have the option afterward to pay $100 for a 1.5-hour consultation with an attorney.
Other sources of support include:
- The Cobb Second Chance Desk helps individuals with a criminal history who may be eligible to restrict and seal their record.
- The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) helps people with record restrictions and pardons, offering free online workshops on how to clear criminal history. It also regularly runs free on-site legal clinics at law libraries and justice centers around Georgia.
- The Fulton County Probate Information Center helps Fulton residents understand how to manage a deceased family member’s estate with free 30-minute consultations with a probate attorney. The Council of Probate Court Judges is a statewide resource offering dozens of standard forms for common probate issues in Georgia, as well as how-to videos and guidance on guardianship for minors and adults.
In Macon, the Middle Georgia Justice Center serves people in Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford, Monroe, Jones, and Twiggs counties. It handles heirs’ property, probate, property, guardianship matters, divorce, legitimation, criminal history relief, as well as ID card and driver’s license issues.
The center helps people whose income is up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $43,740 for one person and $74,580 for a family of three. People apply for legal aid online or in person, and then learn if they’ll receive support to use the center’s self-help resources, direct representation by a staff attorney or a referral to a pro bono or low bono lawyer. The center has expanded from three to six full-time employees this year with more than $500,000 in funding from corporate grants, local donors and federal funds.
Ponder said the Access to Justice committee has just completed a new set of uniform landlord-tenant forms and how-to videos that should make it easier for people to represent themselves. They’ll be posted once approved by the Magistrate Court Council later this year. Their next project is legitimation forms that can be accepted in any Georgia court.
And the committee is currently working with Georgia Legal Services Program to create kiosks offering printable legal forms and instructions that will be placed in seven to 10 courthouses and self-help centers “strategically around the state, in legal deserts,” said Ponder.
“I’m a firm believer that when people have the right resources, they can have success with any kind of case,” she said.
SELF-HELP, FREE AND LOW-COST LEGAL RESOURCES IN GEORGIA
JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIA – Free forms, instructions and how-to videos on family law and landlord-tenant law and a list of Georgia’s legal self-help centers.
GEORGIA LEGAL AID – Offers dozens of free forms, guides and resources to handle legal issues.
GEORGIA LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM – Nonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta.
ATLANTA LEGAL AID SOCIETY – Nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters for low- and moderate-income people across metro Atlanta.
STATE BAR OF GEORGIA – Find an attorney. Tip: Use pricing filter to select limited scope, pro bono, fixed price, etc.
COUNCIL OF MAGISTRATE COURT JUDGES – Free forms generator guides you through questions to create free, customized forms to take to the Magistrate Court.
COUNCIL OF PROBATE JUDGES OF GEORGIA – Offers statewide standard forms and how-to videos for common probate issues, including wills, estates, and guardianship for minors and adults.
GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT – Free resources and attorneys to help people with clearing criminal records, obtaining pardons and early termination from probation.
GEORGIA COALITION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Information on finding a shelter, finding a lawyer, how to be safe in court.
24-HOUR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE IN GA – 1-800-334-2836
Calls to the hotline are automatically connected to the caller’s nearest Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified shelter.
GEORGIA SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS’ COOPERATIVE AUTHORITY – Free standard statewide forms on family violence, protective orders.
Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: The Georgia Supreme Court (Credit: Joy Walstrum)