Surrounded by pallets of canned meat and veggies, six students made the announcement, one number at a time. Two. Seven. Eight. Seven. Eight. Eight.
That’s how many pounds of food Beat Auburn Beat Hunger (BABH) raised for West Alabamians in this year’s food drive, beating Auburn by about 50,000.
The Center for Service and Leadership (CSL), along with the West Alabama Food Bank, hosted the reveal of the final numbers for BABH on Nov. 22 at the West Alabama Food Bank, located in Northport. In its 26th-annual drive, Alabama defeated Auburn for the third year in a row, raising a total of 278,788 pounds of food. Together the schools raised 508,149 pounds.
In a puddle of sparkling cider, the students celebrated. People get to eat because of this drive, said Jacob Burnham, BABH president and a senior majoring in chemical engineering.
“278,000 pounds for the West Alabama Food Bank, with Auburn University over 500,000 pounds of food, which is just incredible, a number I couldn’t have imagined,” Burnham said.
As an action team within the CSL, BABH is a student-led food and fund drive that seeks to unite University of Alabama students, faculty, alumni and the Tuscaloosa community in order to fight food insecurity in West Alabama. The team consists of about 130 students who each have different jobs, ranging from managing can donations, to working with alumni, and even marketing. BABH works closely with the West Alabama Food Bank to track donations and host events on campus.
Events in the community, along with partnerships with Alabama Athletics, played a key role in BABH’s success, Burnham said. For him, raising awareness of food insecurity was the top priority.
“The amount of food-insecure people in Alabama could fill Bryant-Denny nine times over,” he said.
Food insecurity describes a lack of financial resources available for food at the household level. According to 2017 data from Feeding America, an organization working to end childhood hunger, over one in five children in Alabama are food insecure – a figure that has actually gone down since 2015.
“We’re just pushing to create a conversation on these issues, as well as provide people with a direct way that they can help here in West Alabama,” Burnham said.
The food collected plays a big role for struggling families over the holidays, said Jean Rykaczewski, executive director of the West Alabama Food Bank.
Since November, the food bank has been holding four mobile pantries in nine counties every week, which will continue into Christmas, and they have increased shopping times in 97 partnering agencies. Participating areas include Marion, Lamar, Fayette, Pickens, Sumter, Hale, Bibb, Greene and Tuscaloosa counties, four of which are located in the western part of Alabama’s Black Belt.
The Black Belt is a term originally coined in the early 1800s to describe the region’s dark, fertile soil and, subsequently, a large population of enslaved people whose labor made the region prosperous. Now, however, Black Belt counties struggle to attract industry other than agriculture and, in turn, face some of the highest food-insecurity levels in the state.
While the food drive was successful, there is always a need for more support, Rzkaczewski said. Last year for the team’s 25th anniversary, the group raised even more: about 309,000 pounds, with Auburn raising about 255,000 pounds. This year the bank is focusing on providing goods like milk and produce, which can be expensive or hard to come by.
“For example, we have a lot of green beans but not a lot of yams,” Rykaczewski said. “Those monetary donations are a great way for us to supplement our stock.”
The bank has also made strides in providing for populations that have struggled to gain access, such as seniors.
“We can see a decrease in some areas, but our need for seniors has gone up,” Rykaczewski said, citing a small decrease in food insecurity rates over the past few years. “As the numbers change, there’s less readily available funds for seniors.”
This year the bank has provided food for about 1,200 seniors and plans to serve 1,500 by July, which will be nearly double the senior population served last year. The bank also started a pilot program with the American Heart Association this year, working to bring in more healthy options for customers with health issues like hypertension or diabetes.
For Burnham, the drive is a reminder of what’s possible when the campus and community come together.
“It’s incredible to see what the students of The University of Alabama can do when partnered with the West Alabama Food Bank,” Burnham said.