A crowd of Birmingham residents gathered at a community college parking lot in 2011 to welcome a new sight to the neighborhood: fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. While the mayor and other local leaders delivered speeches, shoppers browsed tables piled high with collard greens, okra, peaches, green beans, melons—produce grown less than 100 miles away but seldom seen in local food stores.
This volunteer-led Southwest Fresh Market is part of an ambitious plan initiated by REV Birmingham, a nonprofit working with local government, business, and community partners to find solutions to a common challenge: how to connect urban, often low-income residents with small farmers looking to boost sales. Making the link is a “win-win,” says Andy Williams, one of the growers at the Southwest Fresh Market. “The farmer gets a guaranteed base of consumers, and the neighborhood gets good food and local jobs. Right now it’s a missed opportunity.”
Birmingham has seen grocery stores shut their doors in recent decades, as big box retailers on the outskirts of the city have become the norm. Today, many of the city’s food stores are restaurants and small corner stores that mostly sell packaged, frozen, and prepared foods. A recent survey found that more than 40 percent of Birmingham residents live in areas defined as “food deserts,” neighborhoods with extremely limited access to grocery stores selling healthy food.