Cities battle hunger crisis where unhealthy food is everywhere

Updated
 Birmingham, Ala.
Birmingham, Ala.

Good teachers always watch for signs of abuse or distress among school children, but in Birmingham, Ala., another problem demands constant vigilance: a lack of adequate nutrition.  The clues aren’t always straightforward. Mary Michael Kelley, director of the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, recalls the case of a third grader who started crying inconsolably during class one morning. After refusing at first to tell her teacher what was wrong, she explained that her dad was in jail and her mom—broke and out of food stamps—had instructed her older sister to steal food from the school cafeteria. The child understood her mom’s dilemma, but she worried her sister would get caught and land in her father’s predicament.

The food bank has since launched a Weekenders Backpack Program to help schools identify kids who need weekend meals to supplement the ones they get at school. Every week, volunteers pack dried grits, canned meals and fruit leather into pouches distributed through 17 local schools. On Fridays, 2,000 at-risk children take them home to tide them over until Monday.

The need for a weekenders program is just one measure of the food crisis facing Central Alabama. Kelley’s organization will put 7.5 million pounds of food on local tables this year, up from 4 million pounds in 2008. Some 525,000 local residents now rely on the food bank’s services, and roughly half of them are children and seniors. “It’s gotten increasingly difficult, especially for kids, to get adequate nutrition,” she says.

Food insecurity is one of the cruelest manifestations of poverty and inequality in America. And though “hunger” is a convenient, emotionally charged shorthand for the phenomenon, it’s not the problem we face. A low-income American child is now seven times more likely to be obese than underweight. And though the need for food assistance is great and growing, the real challenge is to create food systems that foster health rather than lifetimes of obesity-related disease and disability.

On Monday, Feeding America, a national network of food banks including Kelley’s, reports new numbers about food insecurity in every corner of the country. Birmingham is as good a place as any in America to see a broken food system and the seedlings of a healthier one. The decline of the steel industry and a half-century of white flight have turned much of this once-vibrant industrial capital into a moonscape of abandoned homes and factories. The people are poor. Much of the soil is contaminated. Schools and hospitals are closing. And for anyone lacking a car and a bank roll, the food choices can be bleak.

Nearly half of Birmingham qualifies as a food desert, meaning that fresh, whole food just isn’t sold there. Grocers have left for more prosperous venues, leaving dollar stores and fast-food chains to fill the void with cheap, processed calories. In Jefferson County, which includes comfortable suburbs as well as Birmingham’s battered core, roughly a third of adults are not just overweight but obese (compared to 25% nationally)—and 17% rate their health “poor or fair” (compared to 10% nationally).

But as Birmingham’s low-income residents scrape by on 99-cent mega sodas and packaged fried pork skins, an unlikely coalition of foodies, farmers, business leaders, community organizers and public agencies now coming together to change the city’s food environment. None of them deny they have a long way to go, but signs of progress are popping up everywhere from school yards and vacant lots to the basements of Baptist mega-churches. “This city has the potential to be a different place in five years,” says David Fleming, the CEO of REV Birmingham, a private, nonprofit community-development group. “Right now we’re trying to throw gas where the sparks are.”

If you can’t buy it, grow it

If Melodie Echols forgets to pack a lunch before heading to work in Birmingham’s Norwood district, she has a half-dozen options to choose from. Checkers, McDonald’s, KFC, Church’s Chicken, Sol’s Hot Dogs and a barbecue joint are all within walking distance of her office at the Norwood Resource Center. To find an apple, she would have to cross the expressway, drive through an industrial area and pull into the Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

Like much of Birmingham, the once-vibrant Norwood neighborhood is largely poor, overwhelmingly black, and bereft of healthy food options. The resource center, which Echols directs, has long helped struggling residents pay their utility bills, prepare their tax returns and find needed public services. These days, it’s also helping them plant vegetable gardens and develop a farmers’ market.

The results to date are modest—a market that boasts one small farmer and a small, well-kept garden at the local grade school—but more is in the works. The center is now organizing residents to till and plant three abandoned lots that are eligible for farming under Birmingham’s new urban agriculture ordinance. The state’s agricultural extension system is sponsoring classes to train and certify kids and adults as “master gardeners.” Birmingham’s Urban Ministry, working from the same playbook, has established two local markets and a community garden in the city’s West End.

As many cities have discovered, farmers’ markets and vegetable patches are more than a source of fresh produce. As Birmingham’s new ordinance notes, they also combat blight, strengthen property values, cultivate a sense of community, promote entrepreneurship, generate tax revenue, enhance quality of life and—perhaps most important—shape children’s expectations about eating. Any abandoned lot—and Birmingham’s long decline has left many—can now be claimed as urban farmland if tests show the soil is safe.

Turn food assistance into nutrition assistance

In an era of mass poverty, food-assistance programs can exert powerful effects on public health. Depending on the products they pay for, food programs can improve people’s health or compound their disadvantages. SNAP, the federal food-stamp program, still lacks any meaningful nutritional standards (it spends $4 billion on soda and other junk beverages each year), but food banks are making progress. Last year, two-thirds of the food distributed by Feeding America qualified as what the network calls “foods to encourage.” The food banks’ offerings included 800 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, and they expect to distribute 1 billion pounds in 2013.

The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama is at the forefront of that effort, thanks in part to a $6 million stimulus grant the Jefferson County Health Department secured in 2010 to combat obesity. The county used some of those funds to buy the food bank a refrigerator truck and 22 coolers for the smaller agencies it serves. The result was a 20-fold increase in produce distribution in just two years—from 3,500 pounds in 2010 to 700,000 pounds last year.

Meanwhile, United Way of Central Alabama has used a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to seed food co-ops and mobile produce markets in underserved areas. A local group called PEER (Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources) has started carting fresh produce into public housing projects. Its van sports an EBT reader that enables SNAP recipients to spend their food-stamp credits on fresh, affordable produce.

AARP, meanwhile, is sponsoring outreach programs to help low-income seniors get more nourishment for their money. This week, two dozen seniors engaged buoyantly in a session led by the Urban Ministry’s Ama Shambulia, a trained chef and urban gardener who doubles as the Queen of Beans. As the participants passed around different varieties for inspection, Shambulia shouted out delectable recipes. By the end of the hour, the participants were ready to stock their pantries with bulk beans, a “holy trinity” of carrots, celery and onions, and a versatile collection of tasty, affordable seasonings that range from molasses and mustard to cumin, turmeric, chilies, mint and fresh garlic.

Jumpstart a retail market

These are all vital steps forward, but a sustainable citywide food system is not built on food banks and community gardens alone. The larger challenge is to create a self-sustaining retail market for fresh, wholesome food. Fleming, the community redevelopment advocate, sees his city’s food deserts as one symptom of a broader curse that can be broken only through a revitalization plan that spawns business investment and attracts younger, more educated workers. But even today’s Birmingham has a pent-up demand for better food options, and Fleming has dispatched Taylor Clark, a talented young project director, to kick-start a private-sector response.

It’s not an easy sell. In the neighborhoods that most need grocers, 70% of commercial buildings are boarded up or falling down, and 70% of residents live on a monthly SNAP benefit. So rather than try to lure the big chains to town, Clark is helping small existing businesses expand their offerings. She starts her day early, filling the back of a pickup with fresh harvest from the big farmers’ markets in wealthier outlying areas. Then she visits the handful of restaurants and corner stores that have found willing customers, delivering whatever small amounts they’re confident they can sell.

Her small retailers love the low-cost micro-shipments, and their customers love the farm fresh onions, tomatoes, peaches and squash. “If I have to buy 30 pounds of apples from a big box distributor and only sell 10, I lose money,” says Brad Snyder, the sole proprietor of a small shop called South’s Finest Meats. “But if I can buy 10 pounds from Taylor and sell them all, I come out ahead. When she can find me good produce at good prices, I make a couple hundred dollars a week off it.”

Clark’s goal is to create a critical mass of Brad Snyders, link them directly to struggling farmers, and recruit local entrepreneurs to take over her middle-man role. Next week, she’ll install a room-size walk-in cooler in the garage of a microbrewery owner who shares her dream of a new Birmingham. And if all goes as planned, it will lure farmers and retailers into longer-term relationships. “We have to build the business to where farmers, retailers and small distributors all know they can count on it,” she says. “Then we’ll get out of the way.”

This report was produced as part of a collaboration with InPlainSight.nbcnews.com, TheGrio.com, NBCLatino.com, and NBC’s owned television stations.

Cities battle hunger crisis where unhealthy food is everywhere

Updated