Local programs feed the hungry

Joel Bray walks around barefoot in the sandy soil of Shining Light Garden in Vero Beach, Fla., as he explains to a group of about 20 students from The University of Alabama how to properly harvest an onion.

“If the stem is broken and laying over sideways, that is when you know it’s ready,” he said.

The students get to work pulling sweet onions out of the ground, one of the many tasks they would tackle during the week volunteering at the garden.

Shining Light Garden is a nonprofit organization that grows fresh, organic vegetables to help feed the homeless and hungry in Vero Beach, Fla. All of the vegetables grown are given away for free to soup kitchens, home-bound seniors, food pantries and homeless camps.

The organization began in Bray’s backyard and since then has expanded to around 20 acres of land that people in the community have donated to Bray for use. He uses volunteers, like the group of students from Alabama, to help take care of the large garden.

Rowdy Spradling, a senior majoring in criminal justice, was one of those volunteers and was inspired by the work Bray is doing in Florida.

“A couple weeks before spring break, I really got on this farming kick. Then I ended up working on the garden, and I was really inspired by Joel’s flower section,” Spradling said. “He grows flowers, and then some ladies who volunteer with hospice come and cut them to put inside patient’s rooms. It got me thinking that this is something I could do.”

Spradling has since put up four beds in his backyard, two of them being devoted to flowers that he hopes to donate to hospice and others for various herbs and vegetables.

Spradling is not the only person in Tuscaloosa who is looking to give back to the community and join the fight against hunger. As one of the most obese states in the nation, Alabama may not be thought of as a state that is hungry, but the reality is Alabama is one of the top seven states with statistically higher household food insecurity, according to Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief charity.

Although Tuscaloosa may not have a Shining Light Garden, there are other organizations looking to combat hunger and its effects, and students are very much a part of that fight.

Professor Susan Daria’s APR 419 class has partnered with Secret Meals, a nonprofit organization started by the Alabama Credit Union to make sure children are fed during the 48 hours on the weekend they are not at school.

Secret Meals began in 2008 when Alabama Credit Union realized there was a gap in children’s eating. The credit union partnered with the West Alabama Food Bank to provide children who are identified as going hungry over the weekend with meals.

“When they are at school, they are provided with free or reduced cost meals; however, children who have been identified as going hungry have nothing during the 48 hours when they are home for the weekend,” Kelley Jones, Secret Meals program coordinator, said.

Jones said school officials, such as teachers or lunchroom workers, identify children exhibiting signs of hunger like hoarding food as the weekend approaches and then eating everything they can get their hands on Monday morning.

“People automatically assume that hunger is something that happens in another country, and it’s not something here,” Jones said. “However, 20 percent of Alabama’s children are living below the poverty line.”

The hunger problem can be amplified by poor education about local, healthy food and the subsidization of cheap processed food. Druid City Garden Project is an organization that uses school gardens, farm stands and educational programs to help diverse communities in Alabama preserve cultural food history and build vibrant food systems.

“In 2008, our founders began a documentary about Alabama food history, interviewing our state’s farmers and eating only locally grown food for a year,” Lindsay Turner, executive director of DCGP, said. “They quickly realized that Alabama has lost its connection to farming and local economies. They set out to make a change.”

Turner said hunger, malnutrition and obesity are inter-connected and are major problems in Tuscaloosa and Alabama as a whole.

“While [hunger, obesity and malnutrition] seem like parallel problems, they are, in fact, intertwined,” Turner said. “We have a food system which subsidizes the cheap production of processed corn that, in turn, creates cheap calories. This is the simplified version of why you see low income neighborhoods with high densities of fast food and corner markets and yet, no grocery store. The USDA calls areas like these ‘food deserts’ and residents who live here typically have little to no access to fresh, affordable food.”

Tuscaloosa has a number of classified food deserts, including areas where some of DCGP’s gardens are located.

“This is why one of our core mission principals is to provide affordable food to all communities in Alabama and why we run weekly, on-site, student-run farm stands, where we subsidize the produce,” Turner said.

The farm stands are a part of DCGP’s Budding Entrepreneurs program, where elementary students learn basic business skills while providing their families with an opportunity to purchase garden-fresh produce.

Currently, DCGP has three gardens: University Place Elementary School, Stillman Heights – the temporary location of UPES after the April 27, 2011, tornado – and Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Facility. This fall, Turner said they hope to expand to Woodland Forrest Elementary, Oakdale Elementary and the Sunshine School in Hale County.

Spradling said it was encouraging to learn about other groups in Tuscaloosa trying to give back to the community and help fight issues like hunger.

“It’s cool to hear about those things,” he said. “I didn’t know about a lot of them before. But I am excited to know about new ways I can help get involved in helping the community.”