Sally Allocca will tell you that there are swamps all over Birmingham that a lot people don’t know about. In some of these swamps people can even lay their hands on an alligator — the kind that’s usually richly battered and deep-fried. These swamps have deep-fried everything, she said.
“I don’t think the term ‘food desert’ is really all that accurate. I like to think of them more as swamps,” said Allocca, who serves as the executive director of the East Lake Farmers Market. “You have access to food, but it’s usually fried, unhealthy fast food. In terms of diet-related diseases and the percentages that we have in Alabama, it is still a very prominent issue, because a lot of that can be controlled by nutrition and claiming ownership of that.”
To put it lightly, Alabama seems to have a bit of a weight problem. Roughly 32.4 percent of adults in Alabama are obese, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. Closer to home, in Jefferson County, about 66 percent of adults are either overweight or obese. The hefty trend also spills over to children. According to the CDC’s data, 14.1 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families are obese in Alabama. For children aged 10 to 17, the obesity rate is resting at 18.6 percent.
Perhaps most striking is the fact that over the last 25 years, the number of obese Alabamians has grown substantially from 11.2 percent in 1990. So what’s fattening Alabama up at such an alarming rate? Allocca goes back to her idea of the “food swamps.”
She said it’s not that there’s not food around. “It’s just that typically the food people have access to and can afford in these low-income areas is not nutritious. And there are lots of complications that come along from eating that kind of food all the time,” she said as she walked through the cafeteria located in the basement of East Lake United Methodist Church, where she has been the pastor for over two decades.
On the other end of the food spectrum, there are a substantial number of people in Jefferson County, also primarily in low-income areas, who are plagued by food insecurities — that is, a household that lacks consistent access to food. It’s not just about money, but people who lack transportation also suffer from these insecurities. Roughly 18.6 percent of people in Jefferson County fall into this category.
Maybe it was fate, she said, that she now finds herself at the helm of a farmers market whose priority is providing fresh produce to people living in a low-income area who may not have access to anything other than fast-food joints and convenience stores. Allocca wasn’t raised on a farm, nor did she ever have any inclination to become a farmer, for that matter. She just wanted to do what was best for her community. So 10 years ago, she started the East Lake Farmers Market.
She is not alone. Over the last several years the Magic City has seen a rise in these urban farming factions — Jones Valley Teaching Farm, the Urban Food Project and the West End Community Gardens, to name a few. Maybe it’s something in the dirt that brought them here. Or maybe it was because people like Allocca started to realize that in order for Birmingham to blossom, the hungry have to be fed and everyone needs to be able to get their hands on some fresh produce. Just ask Jesus, she said.
“It’s a very Biblical thing, the idea of feeding the hungry. It’s not just something that affects members of this community either. Hunger is an issue that touches everyone,” Allocca said. “And those issues are made exponentially worse with poverty.”
East Lake Farmers Market
While walking through the winding corridors of the East Lake United Methodist Church, Allocca stopped and opened a door into a vast worship hall. Beams of light shone through the stained glass windows that lined that hall and came to rest on the pews.
“I always wanted us to be good stewards of the space we have here. As you can tell, we have a lot of space,” Allocca said. “So we had to get creative with how we use what we have around here.”
The cafeteria in the basement is more commonly referred to as the “Downstairs Diner.” On any given day of the week, people from the surrounding community gather in the church basement for some “down home cooking.” In essence, the diner is a quaint meat-and-three that many people walk to on a daily basis for lunch.
Allen Godwin is seated at a table in the diner, enjoying his pork chop and peas. He comes to the diner nearly every day. As someone who depends on the buses to get around, Godwin explained that one of the biggest challenges faced by people with food insecurities is the lack of public transportation in places like East Lake. “I tell you, transportation is a big issue for people who are hungry,” he said.
“For me, time isn’t a problem. But for people going to work, it’s a lot harder. The buses seem like they are always breaking down, and for people who depend on them to get to work, or to get food, that is a big problem,” Godwin said.
Perhaps one of the more innovative aspects of the East Lake Farmers Market is their mobile market program that helps get food to people who lack reliable transportation. After all, the farmers market is only open from May until October, but thanks to a modified church bus — an underwater theme from days past still covers the interior of the bus — people have access to produce year-round.
“So we sell produce off of the bus, but we also go to school and senior centers and try to reach folks who can’t get to the market and may not have access to grocery stores because we don’t have one of those in this area,” Allocca said.
Since she is not a farmer herself — nor are there any fields around for her to make use of — Allocca relies on her partnership with local farmers to supply the market and the bus.
Although she refers to her market as “the older kid on the block” in a city that now is home to many like-minded organizations, she acknowledges the fact that progress is being made by these organizations’ ability to work together.
“We have all worked together in a sense for a long time. We have worked together with the Urban Food Project when they did their corner store work and cooperated with them when we took the bus to different housing communities. We’ve connected them with some of our farmers, so we share some of them,” Allocca said, adding that for once it seems Birmingham is not at war with itself over limited resources.
“But we do all go for a lot of the same grant money,” she said with a smile.
The Urban Food Project
Taylor Clark speaks fondly of her time spent growing up on her grandparent’s chicken farm in Calhoun County. Clark, the manager of the Urban Food Project (which falls under the umbrella of REV Birmingham) says that after attending college at Central Florida, she ended up losing her job in 2008.
“I lost my job and found myself in a really compromised position financially. I was probably living food insecure at that time and didn’t even realize it,” Clark said. Then she had an idea that began to shift her consciousness, she said.
“I was feeling somewhat desperate, so I built my first raised bed [garden] and grew arugula for the first time. And it really ignited something in me, about people living in poverty not needing to go hungry. So I really became passionate about that,” Clark said. She categorizes this as her “a-ha” moment.
In 2010 an opportunity for a grant opened up in Birmingham, a place where Clark already had family living. “So I came here and was just absolutely amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit of Birmingham and the progressive work that was happening here. I just fell in love with it,” she said.
The Urban Food Project was born out of that grant for nonprofits looking to fight obesity in Jefferson County. Over the last several years, that is precisely what Clark and her team have been doing through the Urban Food Project.
“We were one of the first organizations to look at Birmingham’s food deserts. And we began to craft strategies and solutions to address this situation,” Clark said. She and Allocca both claim that the situation with food access in Birmingham is something that blankets the whole city, a widespread issue that is not isolated to the smaller neighborhoods that surround the city.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, the Urban Food Project has honed in on some of these solutions to fight against the problems of obesity. The farm to corner store program has helped connect Alabama farmers to local stores that may otherwise not carry fresh produce.
“A lot of these stores didn’t have the buying power to have produce delivered by these larger companies,” Clark said. “So we saw a larger economic opportunity for us to create a food hub and distribution system. That’s what we’ve been pouring a lot of our energy into and it’s something that has really been picking up a lot of traction recently.”
Clark agrees that transportation is a huge factor when determining whether someone can have access to food. “It’s not just people with low access and low incomes. It’s people lacking vehicles too. You could be in a portion of Mountain Brook that could be considered a food desert if you don’t have some kind of transportation. So that is a huge issue that still needs to be addressed,” Clark said.
So how can the cycle of poverty and obesity be broken in Birmingham? “It’s going to take a community-wide effort,” Clark said.
“It’s going to take a multi-pronged approach with everyone playing their part. There are people and organizations that have been working collaboratively to chip away at these problems. Urban farms and community gardens that keep popping [up] are giving the neighborhoods an opportunity to not only have fresh foods, but also empowering them to grow their own,” Clark said.
If you teach a man to fish…
“As Southerners, our heritage is rooted in food. It’s rooted in rich, flavorful, salty and sweet foods. And culturally, across the country, we have shifted away from local food sources and eating healthy. We just seem to really be struggling with it in the Deep South,” Clark said.
Even with all the progress made by providing low-income communities with a farmers market, or connecting local farmers to corner stores that otherwise wouldn’t have fresh produce, people may not take advantage of these opportunities. They need, advocates say, to be empowered.
Places like Jones Valley Teaching Farm and the East Lake Farmers Market have programs that are aimed toward giving people the knowledge necessary to grow their own foods. It’s something that goes beyond just handing out vegetables, Allocca said.
“For people that can’t make ends meet, fast food is just the way they choose to go. I mean, you can get a pizza for $5 or you could get a salad for $10. … If you were in a low-income family, which one would you choose?” Allocca asked.
Most everyone has a fond memory of food, whether it’s a family picnic or a Thanksgiving meal. There is an almost primal sense of camaraderie that comes along with sharing a meal with others, Allocca said.
“That’s where you find the quality aspect of food,” she said. “If you’re just thinking it as fuel and just something to ‘get in me,’ that’s missing the point, I think. If you pair that food with an experience, just sitting down with friends and family and eating a meal, then you have an idea of what it means to be a community.” And having the capability and willingness to grow the food that is being shared makes the experience that much more special, she said.
Clark agrees that living in a fast-paced world, it’s easy to forget this simple aspect of the human experience. “Cheap food isn’t healthy. So how do you begin to empower families and individuals to prepare their own meals? How can you get everyone to reprioritize and make the most out of their food budget?” Clark asked.
She doesn’t have an answer to that question yet. But for those individuals and organizations that are working to eradicate hunger and cut back on obesity in Jefferson County, it all starts with a putting a few vegetables on the table. Preferably ones that aren’t fried.