The Alabama Blackbelt Community Food System Project

Final Report for CS08-067

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Andrew Williams
The United Christian Community Association
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Project Information

Abstract:

The project demonstrated that a community could produce food locally and naturally and train its youth and young adult population in the process. This project demonstrated that while local food production is not a priority in many rural communities, these communities can develop food production systems with the following:
• community leadership or gatekeepers are identified, empowered, and provided financial and technical assistance to start food projects;
• youth, young adults, and seniors involved in the process;
• community residents enjoy food produced in the community at a reasonable cost; and
• project participants earn wages for project work.

Introduction

The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that during the 1990’s rural areas received unprecedented economic growth. Poverty fell from 17.1 percent to 13.4 percent and the rural per capita income increased from $16,506 in 1993 to $21,831 in 2000. However, by 2001 a recession caused rural income growth to slow and poverty to increase. In essence, while rural citizens may have experienced some economic growth, research suggests that the all-important issue of food security remained a threat to the sustainability of rural areas.

In 2002-2004, the United Christian Community Association (TUCCA), a faith based 501 (c) (3) tax exempt organization located in the rural Taylor Community of Marengo County, Alabama began to address some of these needs by facilitating a process to demonstrate alternative sustainable agricultural production systems on their 44 acres demonstration farm. Yet, the Taylor Community still lacks an adequate food system to address the need for food security and cultural sustainability. With an African American population of 140 people, residents of this Blackbelt community must travel at least 12 miles to the nearest grocery store and prepare for a 35 mile journey to a larger national chain marketplace.

This community, like many other rural communities, has lost part of its culture of actively producing safe and healthy foods for families. As a result, at least two generations of people have little to no knowledge of healthy food processing and production. These communities and their youth are unaware that the December 2006 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement reports that 21.8 percent of Black households have food insecurity and that regionally, the food insecurity rate was above the national rate in the South by 12.3 percent. As a result, this project proposes to help overcome this problem by:
• Developing a demonstration community food system model to educate 200-300 elementary school students from schools within a 15 mile radius of the TUCCA demonstration farm by conducting field trips to the site so students can observe and participate in food production, packaging, processing, and storage.
• Encouraging 5-10 small, limited resource and socially disadvantaged farmers to become active producers of vegetables and meats.
• Establishing a centralized location at the TUCCA multi-purpose complex to store products for customers to purchase at a reasonable price.
• Meeting with 5-10 communities to encourage the establishment of their own community food system.

When this project is complete the following outcomes and milestones are expected:

• African American students from surrounding rural communities in the Blackbelt become aware of safe and healthy community level food production and become educated on the need for such production; thereby bridging the agricultural generational gap.
• A community food system demonstration site impacts and supports community education and outreach through delivering first hand participation and observational workshops.
• TUCCA establishes a centralized location to make products available to community residents and customers; thus encouraging entrepreneurship, community innovation, sustainability, and ultimate private enterprise.

 

Project Objectives:

Objective # 1. Develop a community food system project team consisting of youth, young adults, and seniors. This team will guide the project process and report progress to the TUCCA board of directors. This team will develop project implementation plans as well.

Objective # 2. Select a group of farmers willing to participate in the project by utilizing existing personal and project resources. TUCCA will provide a small production base at its demonstration site to aid the project process.

Objective # 3. Develop a centralized location on TUCCA property to store a supply of frozen and fresh vegetables for public sale. This will include a small freezer, cooler, and sales facility that will be open at least one day per week. To ensure community access to the products, a call in order system will be implemented and scheduled pickups will be designated. This objective will not utilize resources from the project fund request. TUCCA will complete this effort from existing funds.

Objective # 4. Provide an opportunity for youth and young adults to receive hands on training in the production, harvesting, processing, packaging, and marketing of the farm raised product. This objective will be completed through tours, workshops, and field days.

Objective # 5. Develop and complete a project evaluation and outreach concept that will be available detailing the community food system process, the pitfalls, and lessons learned. At the end of the project, information will become available to potential entrepreneurs the model as a small community business.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Keisha Turner

Research

Materials and methods:

The following describes the materials and methods used in the project design:
• A team from the Taylor Community was organized consisting of boys, girls, young adults, adults, and seniors to plan and implement the project
• The team selected the area within the community that would be used for planting vegetables.
• The selected areas were soil tested and members of the team agreed to be responsible for planing, managing, and harvesting the agreed upon crops.
• In addition, the team agreed to mange several open spaces in the community to demonstrate a community garden concept to encourage community residents to observe the production of food.
• The land was prepared by the adult members of the team and children in the 8-10 year old age group were taught to plant seeds by hand and to observe the stages of growth from start to fruit maturity.
• Most of the plots in the community were organically grown and composted horse manure was used to supplement the nutrients in the soil.
• The Alabama Career Center collaborated with TUCCA and provided training salaries for five young adults between the ages of 16-24. The young people served for a period of six weeks working the food security project.
• TUCCA operates an adult day health and nutrition center for the elderly. This group of seniors were empowered to participate in the process by processing vegetables and storing them in the freezer located at the center. In addition, the seniors at this site developed a vegetable production site as well.
• Farm-raised meats were a part of the project as well to include goats that were produced in the community and sold locally during various seasons of the year. Collaborative efforts were made with a swine producer in the community to address pork needs in the community as well as the needs of out of town guests and family members.
• Some of the products involved in the project were tested through general sales in the farmers markets and out of state sheep and goat markets.

Research results and discussion:

• Students that participated in the program last summer are calling on TUCCA hoping that the same opportunities are available for this summer.
• One young adult and one adult have obtained employment via this project.
• Partnerships have developed that require TUCCA to visit other communities to assist with the development of food production systems.
• A process is in place to have a small supply of food stored in the community at a control location for those that are in need.
• TUCCA is recognized as an entity that can be called upon to serve as a clearing house for information and hands on assistance as it relates to training in the establishment of food security systems.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

One of the local papers in Marengo County, Alabama published an article about the food security project and over 400 subscribers received the opportunity to learn of the project and the efforts of the generational team of project participants. Thus, it is possible that this article inspired an unknown amount of readers to develop their own food security projects or to at least think about the importance of food safety, security, and sustainability.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The Alabama Blackbelt Community Food System Project by design was to create awareness of how a community could start a process to secure some of the food that is consumed by its residents. In addition, training our young people how to produce food, about the environment, and how to use the land to benefit mankind was a key component. As result the following milestones were achieved:
• For the first time, three generations were at the table in the Taylor Community planning ways by which they could address the production of locally grown food. In this effort, small children, young adults, adults, and seniors were involved in the planning and implementation process of the food security project.
• The residents became fully engaged in the process by requesting information concerning the possibility of purchasing some of the products being produced and by sharing their experience in different production practices and methods with the project participants.
• We are at least two generations removed from the land in terms of using it to produce locally grown food. For the first time, children and young adults became reconnected to the land through this project.
• Before this project very little land in our community was used for gardening. However, many small family gardens are in production today. This project generated energy and created an atmosphere to engage community residents in agriculture food production on a small scale.
• At the end of the growing season, a freezer was available where locally grown vegetables and farm raised meats were provided to community residents that had a need.
• Some of the youth and young adults received hands on training in the production of food in the Taylor community.
• TUCCA was called upon to provide assistance to other communities with the development of their own food production systems.
• TUCCA has networked with other agencies and institutions to look at other practices such as the demonstration outdoor hydroponic systems that can be a source of producing vegetables in the backyard with minimal land space.
• The Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston, Alabama has an FDA approved kitchen and an agricultural demonstration site. TUCCA has entered into an agreement with this center to manage its demonstration farm site. This project produced and provided bell pepper for pepper jelly that was marketed under Rural Heritage branding.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

During the project process, the production of vegetables, farm-raised meats, and bridging the generational gap that exist in socially disadvantaged communities of the Alabama Blackbelt as it relates to food security was the primary focus. As a result, the following was achieved:
• The project efforts were recognized by the Rural Heritage Foundation and they requested that Andrew Williams, project director, become a member of their board. This partnership will lead to a greater possibility of food system adoption by small farmers as well as by the organization itself.
• The practice of organic production systems was introduced in the project design. This concept coupled with USDA programs on organic initiatives is being adopted by 15 small farmers in various communities.
• The project director made a presentation at the Annual Food Forum sponsored by the Alabama Sustainable Agricultural Network (ASAN) where over 100 sustainable producers were exposed to the Alabama food security model.
• Alabama A&M University sponsored a Southeast Regional Community Forum in Atlanta, GA. Some of the young adults from this project traveled with the project director to make a presentation concerning the project model. Over 50 community leaders from the southeastern part of the United States were exposed to the project model.
• During the project model, 15 school aged children from the community were trained in the project model. In addition, 5 young adults received employment in the project effort through the Alabama Career Employment system. These persons were employed for a 6 weeks period at 35 hours per week and supervised by project staff.

Future Recommendations

While the topic of quality food and the consumption of that food is such a hot topic on a national level, the importance of food security and safety must be realized in the actions that are taken by our government and local officials. Food recalls are increasingly prevalent and the lack of food security is an issue that is closer to home than many of our communities realize. Growing healthy food for our communities is not a trend, but it is an issue that should take priority not only on the national front but on the local level as well. In order to further food security and sustainability efforts in our communities and in our nation, quite frankly, we must ensure that we have:
• committed volunteers or staff personnel with goals of fulfilling the mission of food security projects;
• project participants must be trained in how to relate and work with the various people that make up a community and in addressing their needs;
• available resources to not only start the food security projects but also have available funding to ensure sustainability beyond existing project budgets.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.