Birmingham ranks among the most insecure cities in the nation when it comes to food — 39th, according to a study conducted last fall by the Food Research and Action Center. Food security, by definition, is the availability of food and public access to it. Many people live in “food deserts”, meaning they have great difficulty reaching nearby food sources. This problem is being perpetuated locally by joblessness, homelessness and lack of a decent transportation system. “Food insecurity is a justice issue,” according to Paulette Van Matre, executive director of Magic City Harvest.
In an age where “going green” is trendy, eating organic is fashionable and shopping at farmers’ markets is a touted merit badge, it’s important to make sure good food is available to all of the people in a community. Van Matre was one of five panelists who, led by Professor Emeritus of Public Health, Dr. Frank Franklin, discussed the drawbacks to our food system and food security at UAB’s Ryals Building. Franklin’s goal was to give his students what he calls a “believe in Birmingham experience.”
“Green is in, and we all want to do these neat ideas and forget that a lot of people don’t have the tools, and they slip through the cracks,” according to panelist Sally Allocca, executive director of P.E.E.R. Inc., the group behind the East Lake Farmers’ Market at East Lake United Methodist church.
“We don’t want to call for national chains to come out and solve the problems for us,” adds panelist Sam Crawford, director of business growth for Main Street Birmingham. The answer, he suggests, lies in equipping our own residents to generate the businesses and jobs that can turn the ship around. But this kind of change may take government assistance and/or private investment, and it definitely takes time.
Crawford is connected with a researcher who is currently conducting a “Food Desert Study” in Jefferson County. Combining statistics about obesity, diseases and the volume of fast food restaurants in particular areas, the hope is that the findings will lead businesses to discover where and how best to concentrate their development efforts.
The East Lake Farmers’ Market and Pepper Place are just two areas where farmers are bringing their locally produced foods closer to needy mouths. From the audience, Cathy Crenshaw, President of Sloss Real Estate Company, offered a seed of hope. “Finding farmers in Alabama just 12 years ago wasn’t easy,” she says. “Now, there are 125 farmers’ markets. There are some real heroes. Things can change really quickly, and that’s what we’ve been seeing here in the last 10 years.”
But, for many people in low-income areas of the city, the markets don’t seem like affordable options. Allocca and Crenshaw are both advocates of a “market bucks” system, which would make what is essentially a food stamp easier to redeem at local farmers’ markets. The first issue, Allocca says is “getting food into hands, even if they don’t know what to do with it yet.”
According to panelist Ama Shambulia, Program Director of West End Community Gardens, that’s where education comes in. Planting gardens in the spaces that communities have, she says, provides people “access to [healthy, fresh] foods in the meantime, while we transition.” Growing food locally also makes eating healthy a more affordable option in addition to putting ownership back in the hands of community members. “The gardens facilitate people getting outside to realize they can grow their own food. That’s very empowering.”
And it’s that personal investment that makes the idea of a community garden or a locally-sustained food system a mainstay. Grants, like the United Way’s effort “Healthy Kids, Healthy Community” can help to initiate change. “Grants bring people together and allow us to talk about these things,” says panelist Amanda Storey, United Way Project Coordinator. “But, the [ideas] are sustained by communities. It doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t stick.”
Also in the audience was Edwin Marty, Executive Director of Jones Valley Urban Farm, and he spoke up about the importance of getting kids on board from an early age. Marty’s “seed to plate” program brings school-aged children to the farm where they’re able to touch, taste and learn about the benefits of eating whole, healthful foods. “No, [our farm] is not going to feed Birmingham,” he says. “But it’s going to provide that model. It says, ‘Yes, we can.’” Allocca echoes his sentiment. “Winning kids over to the idea is going to change the system,” she says.
“Food affects so many different things,” contributes Shambulia. “All of these dots have to be connected. It’s holistic and comprehensive.
Health professionals, politicians, teachers, chefs, farmers. Everyone has a place in this. If we could bring everyone to the table, it would solve a lot of problems.”
For more information or to get involved in any of these efforts, visit magiccityharvest.org, mainstreetbham.org, communitychurchwithoutwalls.org, healthykidshealthycommunity.org, peerinc.org/farmers_market.html and jvuf.org.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food and other topics for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.