Recently, Birmingham was ranked in the top 10 of Southern Living’s (Ten tastiest towns in the South.) This may seem, on the surface, like a frivolous distinction—a nice footnote worthy of a brief daytime television spot with a cooking demonstration from one of our many talented local chefs. However, it is indicative of an increasing availability of diverse cuisine and an emphasis on local, sustainable food practices. At a time when the industrial food system and its perverse commodity logic has devalued food, urban agriculture has blossomed in Birmingham, farmer’s markets are thriving, and respect for the soil and where food comes from is being restored.
The present contradiction to my thesis is the fact that 88, 000 residents in Jefferson County reside in “food deserts”—places where there may be an abundance of calorically dense, chemically enhanced, and nutritionally poor foods, but there is little to no access to nutritious whole foods that are essential to health. Birmingham’s diverse cuisine and renewed focus on sustainable farming practices are two factors providing the solution to hunger and nutrition disparities. “Food security,” defined by the World Health Organization as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” is being addressed by numerous organizations and businesses in Birmingham.
Birmingham is fortunate to have a vast network of organizations, the Health Action Partnership, working to improve the health of our community in several areas, including our food system.
One of these organizations is Jones Valley Urban Farm, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has successfully transformed over three acres of vacant downtown property into an urban teaching farm and initiated education programs serving thousands of adults, children and students across Birmingham and Alabama. I am a proud employee of this organization. I believe it is an asset to any city to have a place where the soil, the plants and animals, and food are respected and valued. We provide educational experiences that connect children to their food, the importance of nutrition, and the roll agriculture plays in all of our lives. We also grow food for wholesale, Pepper Place Farmer’s Market, and we have a summer farm stand where people pay what they can in an honor box. Local residents can take responsibility for their own food security by renting one of our garden plots, which are rented on a sliding scale from $25 to $5 per year and can be paid in installments.
Jones Valley Urban Farm is not the only urban farm in Birmingham anymore. Since 2000, Birmingham has gone from three community gardens and urban farms to over 30. West End Community Gardens operates with a vision to “revitalize West End community’s life blood, body, mind, and spirit through the growing and sharing of foods naturally grown”. Community and school gardens in Homewood, Glen Iris Elementary, Bluff Park Elementary, and South Avondale Community Garden are just a sampling of other gardens that share an ethic of sustainable food practices, education, and food security.
Additionally, Main Street Birmingham’s Urban Food Project seeks to eliminate food deserts by “increase[ing] access, availability, and affordability of healthy foods throughout the city, including full service grocery stores, farmers markets, small store initiatives, and mobile markets”. Editorial considerations are the only limitation from continuing this far from exhaustive list of great work being done. There are many great stories to be told.
A story that repeats itself every growing season at Jones Valley Urban Farm is about the many children that come to the farm for our Seed to Plate agriculture and nutrition education program.
Invariably, we hear how much so many of them dislike tomatoes. Who can blame them? Most tomatoes found in grocery stores, especially in the winter months, have been picked too early, dipped in chemicals to preserve color, have travelled more than 1,500 miles before reaching your plate, and, consequently, are mealy, tasteless, and stripped of nutritional value. However, without fail, every season these same children come to the farm and pick and taste our delicious sungold cherry tomatoes. The sweet juice from this fruit pops in their mouth and their faces light up with surprise. Unconcerned about the nutritional value of tomatoes, one child often exclaims, “They taste like candy!” Every time a child experiences food in this way, a restoration of our traditional food values begins.
There is no question that Birmingham has more than its share of problems, but I believe we have values that can overcome any problem. Food security is still a pressing issue. Unsustainable agricultural practices still threaten our health and environment. Yet, we have another opportunity for reform. Keep supporting restaurants, markets, and grocers with local offerings. Grow and share your own food. Cook for and with family and friends. Value our health and environment and the roles these things play in our children’s education. Eventually, we will continue to emerge from our present contradictions and become the vibrant community that those of us who live here know exists.
Oh! And vote for Birmingham as the south’s tastiest town at www.southernliving.com.