The Deserts in Birmingham

July 18, 2013

Hope Lloyd is a rising senior at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC). She was selected to participate in BSC's Hess Fellows Program - a program that pairs students with nonprofit organizations dedicated to advocacy. Hope was an adviser at Anytown Alabama 2013 and is serving at the YWCA this summer.

Photo: Woodlawn's community garden

Isn't that a typo in the title of this blogpost? Doesn't she mean "desserts"?
These thoughts might have crossed your mind as you scrolled down to begin reading this blog post. Or you might have assumed the extra "s." We all know Birmingham is a haven for food enthusiasts, with diverse cuisines from Mediterranean to Indian to home-style, Southern cooking. Even the dessert options are plentiful, with thriving local shops featuring delights such as unique cupcakes and gourmet popsicles. However, the title of this post was no mistake. There are a few neighborhoods in Birmingham that are referred to by social scientists as "food deserts."

Food deserts are geographic areas with few to no grocery stores, and if there are grocery stores in the area, they are not mainline grocers like Winn-Dixie or Piggly Wiggly. Usually the most readily available sources of food in food deserts are gas stations and fast-food restaurants. Another important term to define when discussing food deserts is "food insecurity." To experience food insecurity is to have limited access to foods that make up a balanced diet. This inaccessibility can be due to healthy foods not being made available in nearby grocery stores, lack of transportation to grocery stores that supply nutritious foods or healthy foods not being made available at reasonable prices. As of 2012, 23.6 percent of Alabamians experience food insecurity, making us the 4th worst in the nation in this regard. Three neighborhoods in Birmingham are considered food deserts: West End, Woodlawn and Ensley.
           
Birmingham-Southern is located down the street from the West End neighborhood. As a student, I have access to food on campus, but I occasionally venture off campus to a grocery store. To visit a mainstream grocery store, I have to travel over seven miles to the nearest grocery store. Though it's a fairly short drive in my car, it's an impossible trip for any of my neighbors in West End who do not have access to a vehicle. Public transportation is an option, but then the amount of groceries, especially perishable items, might have to be limited.
           
Though perhaps terms like food desert and food instability are relatively new terms for many, several organizations in Birmingham are working to better provide for families and individuals dealing with food insecurity. The YWCA has an extensive presence in Woodlawn with programs and a community garden that take steps towards battling food insecurity. REV Birmingham's Urban Food Project is focused on working with partners in the community to bring more healthy options at affordable prices to communities dealing with food insecurity. In addition to making healthy foods more accessible, education regarding the importance and implementation of a healthy and balanced diet is also an important aspect of battling food insecurity. Initiatives like the Junior League of Birmingham's Kids in the Kitchen program empower youth to make healthy lifestyle choices by providing lessons and demonstrations in making healthy meals and snacks that are tasty and affordable, while the Jones Valley Teaching Farm is focused on educating students and teachers in Birmingham about the importance of a healthy and balanced diet. Even with the efforts of several organizations and individuals, instability persists all over Alabama. A heightened awareness of these issues among Alabamians is critical if we are to continue seeing positive change in our state. And if you want to do more, visit these organizations websites to find out how you can be involved.
 

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