By: Liz Marino, Douglas County Sentinel

Despite the abundance of lush woodlands and green space, much of Douglas County lies within a desert — a food desert — and a primary care desert as well.

Frank Smith, director of The Pantry, a community food bank in Douglasville, and The CarePlace, a free medical clinic in Lithia Springs, told members of the Douglas County Kiwanis Club that there are large pockets of the county that can be defined as “food deserts.”

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as ”low-income communities located more than one mile from a reliable source of fresh produce and other healthy whole foods.”

The USDA reports that residents of food deserts who lack a reliable source of transportation, such as is the case throughout Douglas County, are often forced to shop at convenience stores, where prices are higher than full-service supermarkets and selection is typically limited to processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

This, health experts say, is a leading cause of obesity.

Georgia Health News reported in 2015, more than 29 million Americans – including an estimated 2 million Georgians — live in food deserts. That means they do not have a supermarket within a mile of their home if they live in an urban area, or within 10 miles of their home if they live in a rural area.

Equally alarming, Douglas County is also considered a “primary care desert.” Smith said. There is one primary care physician per 2,300 individuals in Douglas County. He said the best scenario is one primary care physician per 1,000 individuals.

“There is a shortage of 1,300 primary care physicians,” he said.

It was the food ministry founded by Smith that ultimately led to the other.

Smith said that The CarePlace was birthed out of an expressed need by hundreds of people who used The Pantry. It was heard repeatedly, “It was a choice this week to either feed my family or go to the doctor.”

To help offset the effect of living within a food desert, every other month The Pantry goes mobile with a rolling food pantry, where 40,000 pounds of food is delivered in partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

The Pantry moved to its current location in the former Glidden Paint Store behind Kentucky Fried Chicken on Highway 5 about a year and one-half ago, Smith said, where it gained an additional 50 percent of much-needed space from its previous location for six years at Crossroads Church on Stewart Parkway. With the growth, their numbers served have increased by 20 percent and the amount of food has increased by 400 percent.

The Pantry’s community food bank ministry began in 2001 under much more humble conditions when it served the needs of the community from a closet at The Church at Chapelhill. At one time, The Pantry was located in the old NAPA building on Church Street in 2008.

An active group of volunteers gather on Thursdays and Fridays just to prepare each week for the approximately 180 families that come to the community food bank ministry each Saturday.

“We serve 10,000 families a year within two and a half hours a week,” said Pam Smith, Frank’s wife and behind the scenes partner, who is the driving force behind The Pantry’s clockwork operation. “The preparations on Thursday and Friday take a lot of effort.”

According to Frank Smith, a large donated refrigerated truck picks up from nine stores, including three Publix locations, three Kroger locations, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. They also partner with Sugar Foods and Warehouse of Hope. Several churches, individuals and corporations help support the mission.

In turn, they share donations of food with the Good Samaritan Center, a homeless ministry in the area, CityReach Church in downtown Douglasville and stock a food pantry at Douglas County High School.

On any given Saturday morning, a family who comes into The Pantry would receive bags of food according to its size. The bag might include such items as peanut butter and jelly, pasta, spaghetti sauce, green beans, canned chicken, Rice-a-Roni, a box of cereal, orange juice and a box of pretzels.

However, the family might have also been able to take home six pounds of fresh meat, fresh, locally grown vegetables in the Plant-A-Row for Hunger Garden by the Douglas County Master Gardeners, from Farmer’s Market in Atlanta and store pickup.

And let’s not forget the bread and a dessert and the fact that they get their food carried out to their cars.

Smith said, “Time and time again we see people who are so thankful — 99 percent of them legitimately need the help. Some come back months later and hand us a check or come back with a donation of food.”

“The Pantry is exploding with possibilities due to an expanse of faith,” he said. “People walk in and get a bag of food and a hug. They find more than just finding food— they find fellowship, prayers and love.”

“Our mission is to be the most loving place in the universe. It’s a joy to be able to help people. What greater joy than helping another in need,” he said.

Pam Smith, who exudes a contagious love and joy to others, said people who come to The Pantry are offered prayer, hope, smiles and possibly jobs.

“If they need more than food, we have options for that,” she said. “We don’t send them away without a place they can call for the things they need. My job is to meet the needs of people.”

The Atlanta Regional Workforce Development program sends out openings for people hiring, said Frank Smith. He said the state will pay for people to start working there and getting trained.

“It is a win-win for the employer and the employee,” he said. “It is a great way for people stuck in the cycle of poverty to pull themselves up, get GED classes and get a job.”

He said the Atlanta Community Food Bank comes out every second Tuesday to help individuals qualify for needed services. WellStar Douglas Hospital also conducts health screens on the first Saturday of every month.

Another of Smith’s ministries lies within The CarePlace, a free medical clinic on North Blairs Bridge Road in Lithia Springs that fills a need within the primary care void — or desert — in Douglas County.

According to Smith, the catalyst for this free medical clinic came in the donation of a 7,500 square foot mortgage free medical building.

“God has blessed The CarePlace with partnerships with WellStar Douglas and Kaiser Permanente and volunteers of licensed medical professionals and many others,” said Smith.

He said they partner with a local ophthalmologist to provide eye exams and cataract surgeries and with a mental health care provider who gives services on a pro bono basis or a sliding fee scale.

Like its food bank counterpart, The Care Place opens on Saturdays only by appointment from 8 a.m. until noon. The clinic is open only to Douglas County residents that are 18 years or older.

“We see everyone 18 to Medicare age and beyond,” said Smith. “They are thrilled to see they can get their prescriptions without any charge.”

Smith said patients must go through a process through the Douglas County Health Department the first Monday of each month in order to qualify.

In December, The CarePlace forged a partnership with a group of nurse practitioners who wanted to open their own clinic, the Community Holistic Advanced Practice of Nurses (CHAPN), who will see patients ranging from the infant to the elderly.

During the time The CarePlace is not open, 80 patients a month or 20 a week can be referred to the nurse practitioners to be seen on a pro bono or Medicaid or Medicare basis. However, pro bono cases must be referred by the health department first, Smith said.

“Services are provider-driven,” said Smith. “Without doctors to provide the services, we could not do what we do. This is why the partnership with the nurse practitioners is huge.”