Storytelling Spotlight: Food Bank of North Alabama

This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Food Bank of North Alabama, Huntsville, AL. Story and photos by David Hanson. 

The Food Bank of North Alabama is also featured in the special report, America’s Food Banks Say Charity Won’t End Hunger, which can be found here. 

The world’s first food bank is not that old. In 1967 retired businessman John van Hengel was volunteering for a soup kitchen in Phoenix, AZ. He would routinely accumulate more food than he could use for the needy.

Then a soup kitchen recipient told him that she often fed her family unopened food from a grocery store dumpster. The woman asked Hengel why there couldn’t be a place to store excess food so needy individuals like herself could pick it up. Why not replace the middle man: instead of a dumpster, why not use a facility, a sort of bank for food?

It made perfect sense, and Hengel tackled the opportunity. His parish, St Mary’s Basilica, gave Hengel $3,000 and an empty warehouse to start his operation. It would be simple. Individuals and companies could “deposit” money or food and needy community members could “withdraw” it.

Hengel got a national grant to launch food banks across the country. The idea took off nationally and abroad.

Almost fifty years later, the Feeding America organization oversees around 200 member food banks nationwide. The general food bank model is simple: Gather food from retail markets and via the USDA, which buys surplus farm yields and makes it available to food banks. The stored food is used for emergency relief after natural disasters and to provide for needy individuals, families, and school children (weekends) on an ongoing basis. The food banks are committed to purchasing food at the lowest cost available. At the Food Bank of North Alabama, as is the case at most food banks, quality is often overshadowed by quantity. Or, more accurately, the cost that matters is the immediate one, price of goods, not the long-term environmental and health costs of processed foods.

“One day we got a truckload of peas at the lowest cost,” says Kathryn Strickland, executive director of the Food Bank of North Alabama (FBNA). “We looked at a can. It was grown, processed, and shipped from China. 11,000 miles away. This was a wake-up call for us.”

Strickland and her staff dug in deeper to find that 2/3 of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US came from outside the country.

“So why does a food bank care about that?” asked Strickland. “We used to get truckloads of produce from farmers in our region. They’d bring us excess potatoes, squash, tomatoes, apples. In the 1990s as the country promoted the Get Big or Get Out agriculture shift toward mono-crops, we watched farmers whom we’d had relationships with sell their land or quit veggie production all together. Some went into bankruptcy. So we have a keen understanding of the cost of imported foods on northern Alabama.”

FBNA went a step beyond their own anecdotal research. They hired a study to assess the state of their regional food-farm economy. The study found that 54% of farmers in the food bank’s eleven county region reported net losses. Of the ones reporting gains, all of them were earning less now (with inflation adjustment) than they did in 1969.

“So our strategy quickly shifted to focus on local food as a catalyst for economic development,” says Strickland.

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David Hanson