Local Initiatives to Reduce Food Insecurity in Birmingham Communities

By Kimberly Tsoukalas | LHC Program Coordinator

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Photo Courtesy of Getty Images | 2020

2021 marked the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: Religion, speech, want, and fear. While religion and speech are constitutionally protected, many families in the Birmingham metropolitan area regularly suffer from food insecurity and are unable to provide for themselves and their families. The pandemic has worsened food insecurity nationwide, with food banks reporting 55% more people going to food banks, according to Feeding America. The US Department of Agriculture officially defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” and affects an average of 1 in 8 Americans.

With Thanksgiving approaching, many families will turn to non-profit and charity organizations to access a holiday meal and offers an opportunity to evaluate the causes, effects, and resources related to food insecurity. 

What causes food insecurity? 

Food insecurity is differentiated by low and very-low access to nutritious food on a stable basis. 2008 saw a substantial jump in the number of families experiencing food insecurity with approximately 22% of children claiming food insecurity of some kind. While there are several nuances in terms of how families can become food insecure, the root of all food insecurity comes from financial instability. Geographical regions, such as the rural south, see higher numbers of impoverished families and, correspondingly, a higher number of families and individuals applying for food assistance. 

However, wages alone aren’t the only deciding factor. One major issue with food insecure individuals comes with the lack of nutrition available in affordable food options. According to the USDA, fresh foods have seen an exponentially higher increase in cost compared to less nutritious alternatives. Between 1985 and 2000 a study found that “the retail price of carbonated soft drinks rose by 20%, the prices of fats and oils by 35%, and those of sugars and sweets by 46%, as compared with a 118% increase in the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables.” Consequently, households often choose to purchase higher calorie, less nutritionally dense foods that are highly processed. 

Additionally, a policy research report commissioned by The Future of Children determined that non-income factors can influence food insecurity, such as a caretaker’s poor mental and physical health. The report states that “children living with a disabled adult are three times as likely to experience very-low food insecurity” compared to children with similar income levels who are not living with a disabled adult. 

What are the long-term impacts of food insecurity? 

According to Feeding America, hunger and health are very closely related. A 20140 study found that food insecurity can increase the likelihood of chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity (Seligman and Schillinger, 2010), ultimately leading to a cycle of higher healthcare expenditures and reducing income even further. It is estimated that food-insecure households account for nearly $60 billion in healthcare costs annually. Additionally, many families have to choose between many other necessities such as utilities in order to provide food. 

In addition to the health disadvantages of food insecurity, food-insecure children and teens see a direct impact on their education. Research shows that food insecurity prevents youth from fully participating in social and school settings and have difficulty engaging in daily activities, assignments, and social interactions during school while also having greater difficulty in creating peer relationships. According to No Kid Hungry, by the time most food-insecure children reach high school, they are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems by a psychologist and are significantly more likely to have been suspended from school. With all other factors accounted for, food insecurity also decreases a child’s chances of graduating from high school, ultimately affecting their income-earning ability later in life and continuing the poverty cycle. 

What can be done about food insecurity? 

Solving or mediating food insecurity has been a priority for many organizations and policymakers for years. The child tax credit, a part of the American Rescue Plan, was partially intended to reduce food insecurity by providing extra income to families. According to the Household Pulse Survey, an experimental tool utilized by the US Census Bureau to evaluate the economic and social impacts of the pandemic, there was a 3-point drop in the number of households with children reporting food insecurity from 11% to 8.4%. 

Future policy changes are possible as well. Lawmakers have declared their intention to make the child tax credit a permanent fixture in the Internal Revenue Code, as well as expanding SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits by 15%. However, community organizations are often the first point of contact for individuals experiencing food insecurity. 

Currently, there are eight food banks in the state of Alabama with one, the Community Food Bank of West Alabama, serving the Birmingham Metro. Operating primarily as a food distribution center, the Food Bank purchases food through industry connections and distributes it to a series of community agencies, over 250 of them, to be administered to local individuals and families in need. Information regarding food distribution events can be found on the Community Food Bank of West Alabama’s website. Information regarding volunteer opportunities, events, and a donation page can be found here

Recently re-opened Blazer Kitchen, operated on UAB’s campus, provides resources for students experiencing food insecurity. In order to abide by COVID-19 regulations, the center is offering online appointment timesfor students and employees to collect pre-packaged parcels of food. Blazer Kitchen operates out of the Hill Student Center and the 1613 Building. A donation portal, volunteer opportunities, and more information can be found on the official Blazer Kitchen website. 

Food banks and local pantries are integral toward mitigating food insecurity in communities and are considered the first line of defense in the fight against hunger. According to the University of Vermont, 85% of food pantry users reported a good or very good experience with them. While some individuals surveyed complained of the long lines and limited selection, the overwhelming majority stated that they were positively impacted by food banks. Food banks are vital to improving food security in communities.