Alabama Food Systems Collaborative helps Alabama thrive
By Katie Nichols
For the Enquirer
The Alabama Food Systems Collaborative strives to support a thriving food system that ensures equitable access, fosters economic opportunities and nourishes its citizens.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals are participating in a statewide partnership and highlighting the opportunity to produce, distribute and enjoy more Alabama-grown food. This common goal has united collaborators from every aspect of the food system supply chain.
“You might not think of the food on your table being part of a system, but every morsel on your plate comes through a complex, interwoven chain of contributors,” said Ruth Brock, Alabama Extension’s point person for the collaborative.
Brock said many smaller farmers are limited to selling direct to consumers unless there is an organized aggregator able to take the products of small- and medium-sized farms to then distribute to wholesale markets. These markets include retail, restaurant and institutional buyers like schools.
Andrew Williams, with The United Christian Community Association, said the food system needs to be revamped.
“We are at a point in our society where we need to revisit our food system, where our food comes from and our disconnection from the land,” Williams said. “We need to develop an up-to-date food system that we can utilize to be food secure.”
Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Farmers Market Authority, said programs like the Alabama Farm-to-School program can be good for the farmer and good for the state.
“The Alabama Farm-to-School program provides Alabama farmers a way to scale up production while serving fresh local foods to local schools,” Wambles said. “The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the Alabama Department of Education coordinate the Farm-to-School program. We can assist farmers with connecting to schools throughout Alabama, in turn increasing Farm-to-School throughout the state.”
Brock said Alabama can benefit from a more robust state and regional supply chain.
“Farmers and ranchers can have access to larger, more diverse markets,” Brock said. “Aggregators and wholesalers will increase job growth. Meanwhile, Alabama retail stores, restaurants and institutions will serve and sell fresh, delicious, Alabama-grown products for their customers to enjoy.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the USDA is making up to $215 million in grants available, as well as other support, to expand meat and poultry processing options, strengthen the food supply chain and create jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas.
“For too long, ranchers and processors have seen the value and the opportunities they work so hard to create move away from the rural communities where they live and operate,” Vilsack said. “USDA is committed to making investments to support economic systems where the wealth created in rural areas stays in rural areas.
“The funding we’re announcing ultimately will help us give farmers and ranchers a fair shake and strengthen supply chains while developing options to deliver food produced closer to home for families.”
According to the USDA, the market for locally grown food in the United States is approaching $9 billion and growing. This expanding market has the potential to power renewal in rural areas and lift communities into prosperity.
Brock said the economic opportunity is not the only positive aspect of growing the market for local food. Having more fresh, healthy food available through wholesale, retail and institutional markets can positively impact community health.
“Across the state, many residents struggle with chronic health conditions that impact their quality of life,” Brock said. “Many communities in Alabama lack options for purchasing fresh, healthy food. By increasing local production and distribution capabilities, residents will have more access to nutritious Alabama fruits and vegetables through a variety of places. These include grocery stores, food pantries and schools.”
Growing markets require large-scale aggregation and distribution. This is often handled by regional food hubs. Food hubs assist area producers in crop planning to meet market demands, market cultivation and food safety.
One of Alabama’s most well-known food hubs is based at the Food Bank of North Alabama. Farm Food Collaborative is an important part of the food system helping farmers connect with wholesale markets to sell produce.