Executive Director Kathryn Strickland said when the food bank opened in the mid-’80s, it was able to supplement food brought in from outside the region with food from local farmers. But the effects of the Federal Agriculture Improvement Reform Act of 1996, which Strickland said was essentially a get big or get out policy, saw the food bank’s relationship with local farmers wane.
According to the study, two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States come from outside the country.
“A few years ago, we were in the market for a tractor-trailer load of peas,” Strickland said. “We were looking for peas at the very best price available. When they arrived we realized they came from China.”
The organization wanted to have a better understanding of the state and local farming economy to assess its potential for economic development and job creation, so they conducted the study.
The study also found that including $6.5 billion to eat at home, Alabama residents purchase $11 billion of food each year. Therefore, the study concluded that if state residents purchased 15 percent of their food to eat at home directly from Alabama farmers, this would generate $980 million of new income for the state’s farmers annually.
Brett Hall, deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture Industries, said many farmers market vendors are there to supplement their income. Rather than purchasing produce from a grocery store, shopping at a farmers market keeps the money at home and supports an Alabama family.
“If you go out and buy $50 worth of produce from a local vendor, you’re making a fairly sizable contribution to that person’s livelihood,” Hall said. “You’re providing a living or at least a part-time living for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have this.”
Hall said buying local has the potential to create jobs — the more people that eat locally grown food, the more workers a farmer needs to employ to get the foods to the market.
Nick Zorn, Alabama Department of Agriculture Farm School coordinator, said the USDA Department of Education is assisting Alabama public schools with a grant called the Farm School Program to buy fresh, local food for schools.
“The program gets an estimated $2 million to buy local and buy fresh for schools,” Zorn said. “There are 800,000 kids in Alabama public schools. We feed about 500,000 a day. It’s a really good program — comes directly from the farmer to the schools.”
Strickland stressed the importance of eating local, knowing where food comes from and how important it is for the food bank to have a fresh, local product to distribute to residents.
“It is important because local food contributes to livelihoods in the north Alabama region. It strengthens the local economy, reduces the number of miles food travels from farm to plate, and offers fresh choices when food tastes the best and is best for us,” she said. “It helps capture food dollars leaving the local economy and retain the wealth in the north Alabama region. It means greater self-reliance and not being so dependent on food that’s coming from so far away.”
Catey Hall, a mother of four from Gadsden, receives local fresh vegetables from Forever Sunrise’s Garden Box Club each week. The club gathers vegetables from their Piedmont farm and other local farmers and bags of produce are delivered weekly to members’ homes, business and drop-off spots. Hall said it is important for her to know where her children's food comes from and how it is grown.
Hall uses the vegetables to prepare her family’s food each week, including her 10-month-old twins’ baby food. She said eating local is cheaper, so the affordability pushes her to find time to make her family’s food. The bag of vegetables she receives each week costs $40 for a family of six. She can make ten 1-ounce servings from one organic sweet potato, compared to paying 59 cents for one jar of the store-bought version.
“They’re beautiful and they’re so yummy,” Hall said. “My vegetables are still wet from the ground when they bring them to me. You can’t get that at a grocery store.”