Despite its expanding automotive and aerospace industries and the richness of its agricultural resources, the state of Alabama faces stubborn challenges of poverty, hunger, and inequality. The overall rate of food insecurity in Alabama is 16.5%, with the central and southern parts of the state reporting some of the highest rates in the nation. Working to improve these statistics are organizations like Alabama Possible and the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. Founded in 1993, Alabama Possible uses education, collaboration, and advocacy to break down barriers to prosperity for all Alabamians. The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama opened its doors in 1981, and since 2016 has broadened its focus to address hunger’s root causes.
Emerson Hunger Fellows Paige Milson and Jeremy Arnold are the first two fellows to partner with these organizations, and the first to be placed in the city of Birmingham. Read on to see how they are conducting research and supporting initiatives to help their host sites address the challenge of poverty across the state.
Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” for its seemingly magical economic growth and population increase due to an industrial boom in the 1870s. Living in this city has shown me that Birmingham is also magical for its strength, vitality, and deeply-rooted resiliency. I’ve learned so much during my time here and already know that I will think of my field placement often throughout my life and career. In my work, I travel all around greater Birmingham and Central Alabama. One of my main takeaways is that there is a lot of work to be done in addressing poverty and hunger in this state, but I strongly believe in the people and institutions that are making it easier for people here to live prosperous lives.
Birmingham’s tumultuous history of racial inequity and segregation lingers today, manifesting as poorer educational outcomes, lower job attainment, higher rates of incarceration, and disproportionate incidence of serious health conditions among communities most impacted by historical racism. For instance, the past redlining of the city caused a lack of business development in some areas, which resulted in these neighborhoods having little to no access to fresh, affordable, healthy foods, leading to poor diets and a multitude of health issues. Alabama’s rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are consistently high compared with other states. The state also has the 5th highest rate (16.3%) of food insecurity in America.
I was placed at the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama to carry out its first Hunger Study, a regional, comprehensive study of the people served by the food bank. The study seeks to understand the needs of people who access food at CFBCA’s partner agencies through conversations about their health, employment status, living situation, SNAP enrollment, nutrition knowledge, and experiences with hunger and food pantries. My supervisor and I trained 42 data collectors and then lead groups of them to interview clients with an 80-question survey about these topics in order to gain a stronger understanding of the needs of people served by the food bank. The knowledge gained from the results of the Hunger Study will be used to inform and aid the food bank’s programmatic, service, and advocacy efforts.
Over two and a half months, we traveled to 28 food pantries in 11 counties and interviewed 195 households. I talked with people in dire living situations, people who have had their worlds shaken by gun violence, people experiencing chronic poverty, and people facing temporary circumstances that have brought them to seek assistance. I’ve visited rural and urban food pantries and seen faces young and old, and the stories I heard broke my heart and intensified my will to continue this work so that no one in this country ever has to worry about not having enough food to feed themselves or their family.
My other project at CFBCA is assisting with regular operations of the Corner Market, a mobile grocery store that offers meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and many other food items at a reduced price. We take the Corner Market to urban and rural neighborhoods that lack full-service grocery stores in an effort to increase healthy food access. I often hear customers mention that they don’t have a vehicle and can’t get to another grocery store, so it also helps overcome transportation barriers, particularly for seniors. I’m inspired by the community input and interest in the Corner Market, from the location of where it’s parked to the advertising to what types of foods they would like to see. It brings to mind the saying, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
After considering all the things I’ve seen and learned during my time here, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most effective way to end hunger is to thoroughly examine its root causes and place the emphasis on healing the source of the problem. Ultimately, my hope is that my work in Birmingham will have a positive impact on those experiencing hunger. I hope that the results of the Hunger Study will highlight the magnitude of the issue and bring about constructive, lasting change. The essence of this city has been shaped by old paths, and I am grateful for the opportunity to play a role in its movement to forge new, flourishing paths.
Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, sits brightly near the foot of iron-filled mountains sprawling east and north into Appalachia. The trek to Montgomery begins by traversing Red Mountain, so named for the veins of hematite that stain the mountain’s rock faces. From here, I-65 stretches for about an hour on a good day to Montgomery with little to see, almost unremarkable save a Dahl-esque giant peach water tower signaling an approximate halfway point. When you see the capital city’s white buildings against the horizon, you’re likely just ten minutes or fewer from your final destination. Montgomery is nestled in the Black Belt, a region of the South historically named for its dark, fertile soil. The region is ideal for agriculture, which was a major industry in the antebellum South due to the cruel enslavement of hundreds of thousands African people and their posterity, forced to tend to the hearty land solely for their oppressor’s benefit. Once the home of tremendous white wealth, today the region has become synonymous with deep poverty and disinvestment as the result of centuries of systemic oppression—and yet, these important reminders of past injustice do little to capture the vibrancy, resilience, and power of today’s Black Belt citizens. For me, the Black Belt resonates with feelings of home. You are met with kindness and small talk at gas stations. Grandmothers beam with pride for their grandchildren weighing multiple college admission offers. A video circulates on social media of an environmental justice rally that has evolved into a praise break. Despite the baggage of history and failed promises from outsiders, these Alabamians are forging pathways forward.
In my field placement with Alabama Possible, a small-but-mighty organization working to break down barriers to prosperity for the state, I’ve further explored this complex narrative through data. For almost a decade, Alabama Possible has produced an annual Alabama Poverty Data Sheet. This comprehensive graphic resource demonstrates the occurrence of poverty, hunger, and other maladies for each county across the state. In recent years, the data sheet has begun to tell a new story: across the state, poverty is declining and income is rising.
The main deliverable from my field placement is an interactive poverty data dashboard. This tool allows users to explore a number of indicators through mapping and data visualizations. With a closer look at the data, the scars of history are evident; the data tell stories. For example, a map of poverty at the census tract level shows the effect of Birmingham’s white flight in the ‘50s and ‘60s, taking advantage of Red Mountain’s physical barrier to deepen class divides and preserve racial segregation between the city and its suburbs; more than fifty years later, poverty remains concentrated in Black neighborhoods. Likewise, graphic comparisons of poverty by race and ethnicity reinforce the depth and persistence of inequality for people of color. It is my hope that this tool will be used by local communities and organizations to learn about the dynamic existence and causes of poverty and advocate for and track community change.
Though much of my time in Alabama has been spent learning about the work to end poverty in Alabama left to do and developing tools to assist in said work, the most rewarding piece has been the seemingly endless opportunities to be a student of the many change-makers Alabama has to boast. In addition to meeting powerful advocates from across the state, I have marveled at sites of tragedy and history that have changed the world. The Civil Rights Movement grew deep roots throughout Alabama. Not far from me stand four statues honoring the young women murdered in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Two hours south is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader but made famous by Bloody Sunday when state troopers brutalized nonviolent protestors, sparking national outrage. And among numerous other historic sites is that almost unremarkable route from Birmingham to Montgomery taken by Freedom Riders, whose nonviolent activism, though met with egregious violence and even imprisonment, could not be deterred. Alabama’s land is rich in resource and history and power. It is a land of giants like Angela Davis, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, and more, whose immeasurable impact continue to inspire me as I grow as a leader ending poverty and hunger and the injustices from which they stem.