Alabama Food Bank Focuses on Growing the Local Food System to Alleviate Hunger
July 12, 2014 | Trish Popovitch
“Our challenge is not only feeding people who are hungry today, but how do we work proactively to address the causes of hunger and poverty?,” asks Kathryn Strickland, Executive Director of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “That’s why we’re interested in supporting economic development within in our local food system; to help create meaningful jobs and healthy food access to really get at the root cause of the hunger and poverty,” says Kathryn Strickland.
What started as a single volunteer sitting behind a desk in a local senior center in 1984 has blossomed into an organization that helps feed 100,000 people over an 8,000 square mile service area in Northern Alabama, with the help of 200 partnering agencies. As Strickland explains, the food bank doesn’t only want to reduce hunger; it wants to give local residents, farmers and stakeholders the tools to connect the dots of a local food system.
FBOFNA’s facility is comprised of 18,000 square feet of fresh and dry food storage warehouse space in downtown Huntsville. They not only provide food relief to area residents, educate and present on hunger issues in the region, operate a weekend backpack program for school students and a loan program for small growers, but FBOFNA also facilitates a farming collaborative in the region.
The “Farm Food Team” helps facilitate partnerships between farmers and local school cafeterias, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants to increase local food access while creating long term customers for local growers.
“Through that program, we helped to launch five new farmer’s markets just in our immediate area,” says Strictland. “We informally convened the farmer’s market managers to help them collaborate with each other on marketing and other activities and we help walk them through the process to become recognized as a SNAP vendor.”
Partnering with local organizations, charities and churches, the FBOFNA is a centralized hub on food initiatives and food needs in the region. Recognizing the need to strengthen local relationships, pool expertise and move Alabama’s hunger relief goals forward, the FBOFNA became the incubator for another regional program: The North Alabama Food Policy Council.
“We are very interested in democratizing the food system and amplifying the voices of the under recognized whether that is local farmers who are trying to get their products to market or residents who want access to healthy food choices in their neighborhood or consumers who want to know more about where their food comes from,” says Strictland. A sustainability report was conducted by the city of Hunstville back in 2010, showing the need for stakeholders to help determine how to make the city and the surrounding area more sustainable for its citizens.
The Council has a three-pronged mission: educate citizens on the local food system, provide a platform for collaboration, and make regional policy recommendations. The Council began by educating the local population, holding workshops and presentations on everything from sustainable community gardens and water usage to understanding the Farm Bill. In 2012 and 2013, the all-volunteer Council held “food dialogs” across the region, inviting community members and experts to get together and discuss how to make the North Alabama area more sustainable while increasing access to healthy local food. As Strickland explains, the dialogs are designed to answer questions that citizens have and give them a real stake in a sustainable future.
“Taking it a step further so that it’s not just a dialog, but there’s actually concrete action steps that residents can take, and that they sign up to follow through on and that the Food Policy Council can incorporate into an actual action plan,” says Strictland.
The outcome of the dialogs will form the basis of an open planning session being held this month. The Food Council will then make policy recommendations to the city of Hunstville, which is in the process of drafting its first urban agriculture ordinance.
“It’s all about the connections. The connection between us and our health, between our food dollars and our local economy; and the connections we have with each other and how our friends and neighbors can grow the food for us,” says Strictland. “A local food system is all about connections and it’s so important to strengthen those in our community.”