Category Archives: Birmingham AL, USA

Birmingham – The Big Challenge (Day 6)

The team was given a Challenge for the day: to live a day-in-the-life of a Birmingham resident. And Saturday is food shopping day, so we were coached by the best to help acquire the fixin’s and make a meal, Birmingham style.

We met with Chef Angela who explained the details of our Challenge and accompanied us during the day. We were given the opportunity to meet with residents of the Avondale community, including one family of 3 generations. We were given insight into the difficulty in finding healthy, affordable food in many of the neighborhoods in Birmingham. We were given our Challenge: break into two teams to compete to deliver the best tasting, healthiest, best presented meal for 6 people. Our budget: $27.




What we found was enlightening. In the first of the three stores within a 5 mile radius, we were to buy ingredients for an appetizer and dessert. Our teams bought half of the available fruits/vegetables: two green peppers, one onion, two bananas and three oranges. There was plenty of canned, boxed and bottled food. Chips, dips and drinks, both alcoholic and not. Packaged american cheese food was the only milk product.

At the second and third stores, we focused on the main dinner meal. We found a similar landscape of prepared food; almost nothing fresh. A bin of mildewing onions and soft potatoes were the sum total of fruits/vegetables. No fresh meat. Crystal-coated frozen fish (we bought all that was available). Teams bought prepared buffalo wings to extract the chicken meat and frozen sausage. There were eggs! Since the entire meal was to be prepared in an hour or less (replicating the limited time available for a family to prepare dinner), we were precluded from selecting frozen ribs or turkey drumsticks. And they were expensive.

The local community market was begun a few years ago as an outlet for family gardeners to share home grown vegetables. It is sustained by ingenuity and sweat. Grants help, a time-consuming process repeated annually to keep the market afloat. We were eagerly looking forward to this, our last stop, to rescue our meal from its processed and chemical laden fate.

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We arrived an hour before closing to a warm greeting and fewer vegetables than a community needs. The tomatoes, squash, beans, watermelon and peaches were beautiful and fresh and were being bought even as we arrived. The team snagged the last of the beets, green tomatoes and zucchini and added some pink beans and squash. We met up with a few of the community folks whom we met earlier in the day doing outdoor yoga, and chatted about the community market.

We then moved on to our meal preparation activity. Chef Angela led us through the test kitchens of Cooking Light magazine, where we were to prepare our meals in for the Challenge to create healthy dinner meals. We were advised, cajoled and helped along the way by Cooking Light staffers, for whom we were very grateful, and we learned some kitchen skills along the way (slicing an onion along the long grain reduces tears!)

An hour later, our meals are prepared and we stand ready to eat and be judged! Not in that order. We have a good proportion of protein, despite being sourced from freezers and prepared foods. Without the community market, we would have failed miserably at incorporating vegetables, no matter how hard we tried.

20140712_Challenge dinner

Our two teams tied (well, one team came out 2 points ahead for a score of 183) for achieving marginally healthy results with a day long effort shopping at four locations. The grocery choices failed the community at large, however. The lesson of this Challenge is that the food deserts are real and palpable in neighborhoods, and they significantly impact life and health in Birmingham.


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Birmingham AL – Day 7

It has been a very busy week.  It’s hard to believe a week ago we arrived in this great city!  We’ve spent the week totally immersed in the food desert challenge as well as meeting a terrific group of people and really working to get to know the City of Birmingham better.  Today was no different.  The day started early with a couple of us visiting the West End Community Gardens.  The gardens are sponsored and supported by the local Community Church Without Walls and is doing great work.  They are producing fruits, vegetables, herbs and ornamental flowers.  They are also bee keeping and have branched into composting.  They have standard composing piles as well as a worm casing composting pile.  They are selling their produce and their compost through the Pepper Place Farmers Market.  They also have a community outreach program to hire young people and train them to build and manage gardens.  They are looking to expand to other lots that have been acquired by the organization.  A great example of community involvement and caring.


We got back from our tour of the gardens and mid day went to the Birmingham Museum of Art.  There are several exhibits going on there and it is a wonderful resource for the community.  They have a wide variety of exhibits including a newly reinstalled African Art Exhibit.  There were pieces there from 200 BCE with a wide array of pieces that span pottery, statuary, clothing, jewelry and other pieces.  There was also the Hester Bateman Silver exhibit and a Samurai Armor exhibit.  We walked around for about an hour and then went to Mrs. B’s a local restaurant in the downtown area that serves good down home cooking.  The meal was excellent!

The final part of the day was a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which included a visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where on September 15, 1963, a white supremacist group detonated a bomb that killed 4 young girls who were preparing to sing in the choir. 


As we traveled through the institute we followed the progression of the history of Birmingham and how the two races built separate societies that eventually became codified in the Jim Crow laws of the South.  The Institute leads you through the story of the pivotal events of 1963 in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma that directly led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Since then, much progress has been made but much still needs to be done.  Recently, the City erected a monument to the 4 girls who lost their lives across the street from the Institute.  The Institute is a valuable gem for preserving the stories of those who struggled for equality and social justice.


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Birmingham – Day 5

Our day was packed with energetic and informative meetings with key stakeholders who are making a positive difference in resolving the food deserts issue in Birmingham.

Our meeting included a prominent Birmingham commercial real estate developer, key executives of Mayor Bell’s office, the Regional Planning Commission, the City of Birmingham Economic Development Department, the Planning Commission and the Executive Director of P.E.E.R. who runs a local Farmers Market with a unique program that delivers fresh produce to the elderly.


We were also hosted by Regions Bank for a lunch with key employees of the bank who are strongly committed to their communities through extensive volunteer activities. Regions was a gracious host and the time we spent with them provided additional insights into the food needs and approaches to help resolve food deserts in Birmingham.

As the day ended the team recapped our day, reviewed our new findings and did our daily brainstorming session. This is an important exercise to determine where we are in the process of delivering innovative recommendations on how to resolve food deserts in Birmingham.

We ended the day with a fantastic team dinner at one of the best restaurants in Birmingham. The team was both tired after our first full week but also energized as we creatively identify ways to make a positive impact in Birmingham!

Touring Marinos

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Birmingham – Day 4

HealthyFood1 The IBM SCC Birmingham team is truly hitting stride in our discovery of the complex issues of food deserts and their impact on the population in this city. We have met remarkable people and have conducted detailed interviews with over 25 stakeholders over the past 4 days. We have had very candid and revealing discussions with civic leaders, neighborhood groups, bank presidents, educators, school board presidents, business leaders, volunteers, charitable organizations and research academics. We have had input from government stakeholders as diverse as county food bank administrators to federal officials from Housing and Urban Development. We have gained the insight and perspective from prominent local chefs, organic activists and urban teaching garden directors. We have met with clergy who manage food distribution networks for the elderly. We have interviewed the prominent grocers in the area and have toured their stores in the most effected neighborhoods. And we have only just begun! Our team is simply amazed by the common bond that that connects this disparate group of people together: the love of Birmingham and the passion and resolve to make their city a better place for everyone. We are so fortunate to have been able to spend time with so many talented, motivated people and organizations all working for a better future in this remarkable city. Make no mistake about it: the challenges are daunting and the progress slow. Much of the City of Birmingham suffers from limited access to supermarkets, grocery stores, and affordable healthy food options. The lack of quality food options leads to major health problems at every age level (particularly in the youth and elderly) for residents in Birmingham’s blighted neighborhoods. Like many other urban areas in the United States, the incidence of childhood obesity, type II diabetes and malnutrition have reached alarming levels in Birmingham. These problems are compounded by a shrinking population in many neighborhoods and the associated decline of the property tax foundation needed to provide adequate services for transportation, public safety and education. Despite these challenges our team has great reason to be optimistic for the future of Birmingham. We have been witness to a passion and commitment that is quite remarkable. The young, energetic women and men we have met, many who have left Birmingham to see the world and return to contribute to their hometown, are extraordinary examples of the kind of people who have met and conquered Birmingham’s challenges of the past. This is a city of character. This is a city of hope. We look forward to tomorrow and meeting more of the people of Birmingham.

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Birmingham – Day 3

Today is our first full day of scheduled interviews. We have been provided an ‘office’ in Birmingham City Hall, where our stakeholders who have been scheduled to meet with us by our host city can conveniently and comfortably share their experiences and insights into the food desert issues. There are many. While we are aware this is a complex issue, understanding how it unfolds in Birmingham is enlightening and very disconcerting. Birmingham is but one city of many that is dealing with this issue, but the impacts are very real in the community. Poverty, unemployment and hunger seem pervasive and inextricably linked.

Old houses

However, spirit and pride are also prevalent in everyone we speak to. Rows of vacant houses sit adjacent to well tended porches and lawns adorned with bright signs of life and vitality. Church groups, housing officials, education leaders and financial institutions, whom we interviewed today, have a keen awareness of the issues and the needs of the community. Everyone is perceptive and engaged in discussion, investigating the issues with us and sharing their own perspectives of cause, analysis, and potential opportunities for mitigation.

Nice houses

We began our synthesis of the issues after the long day of interviews was over. Time to begin planning the report! While we still need a variety of input from stakeholders not yet tapped and much team analysis, the tight schedule (only 14 days till the draft report is due for internal review!) makes it imperative to be working on multiple aspects of the Challenge in parallel. This effort is daunting, but the objective, and the community, drives the team forward. We look forward tomorrow to another insightful day tomorrow meeting more fantastic stakeholders of Birmingham.

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by | July 9, 2014 · 11:13 pm

Birmingham AL – City Kick Off Day!

Today was the official kick off day for the City of Birmingham Smarter Cities Challenge.  Our day began with breakfast served by our hostess at the bed and breakfast where we are staying for our assignment.  She really knows Southern cooking and it got us all off to a great start for the day.  We headed out to City Hall around 8:30 for the initial kick off at 9:15 in the City Council Chambers.  Here is a picture of us in the Council Chambers:

The City Council meeting came to order and the President of the City Council recognized the Mayor who made some introductory remarks and then we each introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what this experience meant for us on a personal level.  For me, Birmingham has long been a beacon of social justice in America.  Last year they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the pivotal events that occurred in the City that led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Dr. Martin Luther King and others led a series of non-violent protests to seek an end to the segregation of business and public facilities.  Their peaceful protests were met with water cannons and attack dogs.  The images from that pivot year became seared in the conscience of America.  We needed to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality and the citizen protesters of Birmingham set an example of grace under pressure and many were arrested including young children who participated in the marches with their parents.  To me, this SCC is a small way that I can personally give back to the City of Birmingham for being that beacon of hope and changing America for the better.

After our introduction to the City Council, we met with our first set of stakeholders regarding the food desert issue, which is what we are here to address.  For those that don’t know, a food desert is general regarded as an area that has limited access to healthy food choices and the primary source of food is either fast food establishments or convenience stores, which typically do not carry items such as meats, fish, poultry or produce.  The stakeholders we met with were from a variety of private and public organizations.  What struck me the most was the passion and commitment these individuals and their respective organizations had around addressing the problem.  They helped us better understand some of the correlations between healthy food access and longer term health issues as well as connections to other challenges the city is trying to address such as economic development and blight mitigation.  I think we came away from this session with a sense that we were starting to better understand what is going on, what has been tried, and what may need attention.  We have a LOT more interviews to go, but these first interviews really lifted us all and we came away eager to hear more.

In the afternoon we went to the formal city kick off at Vulcan Park, which is located on a vista that gives a breathtaking view of Birmingham.

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The kick off was a luncheon that gathered all of the stakeholders both public and private including representatives of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who have partnered with the City to address a range of issues around economic development, health, and smarter city initiatives.  We were introduced by the mayor and we then got to mingle with audience and talk one on one with the different attendees.  This was a real highlight and I learned several things that I had not understood before.  I sat with a representative of a community garden and her young nephew and learned about the work she is doing to transform a vacant lot into a community garden that helps provide the neighborhood with locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.  Other team members had similar experiences.  We are all really delighted by the passion that these folks bring to this issue!  If passion is any indication of success, the City of Birmingham has it in great measure!

The final part of the day was a tour of the city.  We went all over the city and viewed many areas that are developed, being developed or are in need of investment.  I was struck by the fact that while some of the homes were run down or boarded up, the neighborhoods gave off a sense of their great past and a promise of future renewal.  There is a lot going on all across the city.  There was one area that was completely devastated in 2011 by a deadly tornado that also caused a very large loss of life.  Three years later the neighborhoods affected are well on their way back with a lot of new construction that works to retain the character and economic composition of the neighborhood.  We stopped at a grocery store that has been a constant in one neighborhood for more than 60 years.  The business is being run by 3rd and 4th generations of the family that started it and they are reinventing their business to meet the challenge of the times so that they can be there another 60 years from now.  They are converting many systems to highly efficient energy saving and cost saving modern technology to drive as much unnecessary cost out of their business so that they can remain a cornerstone in the community for many years to come.

As we came back to City Hall, I was tired but also energized by the events of the day.  We have a long three weeks ahead of us but today really helped us begin to focus on the challenge we’re here to address.  I am very much looking forward to working with the other members of the team in the days ahead.  Saturday we will be doing a team building exercise and will actually be trying to shop in a food desert and then prepare a meal from what we find.  Walking a mile in the citizens’ shoes will really help us understand the direct impact of the food desert problem.

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Birmingham AL – Day 2

Today was a solid day of activities.  It started with a wonderful breakfast of eggs, sausages, and homemade biscuits!  After breakfast, we continued to prepare for our meetings with stakeholders both inside and outside of city government.  We had a very good meeting this morning where we got an overview of the city, its history, its challenges, and its promise.  There is a lot going on in the city aside from our Smarter Cities Challenge focused on food deserts.  A very comprehensive master plan has been adopted by the city and is in the process of being decomposed into smaller, manageable pieces for implementation.

After a busy morning, we headed over to City Hall to meet the Mayor and other city planning officials.  Birmingham’s Mayor and his staff exemplify Southern hospitality.  We received a very warm and enthusiastic welcome!  The Mayor expressed how delighted he was that we were here and committed to help us in any way he can during our stay.  We were introduced to his team and we received a tour of City Hall, the highlight of which was a traveling Civil Rights exhibit.  We also handled a few logistics since we will be working out of City Hall for the next week.  Starting tomorrow, we will be introduced to the City Council and other stakeholders.  The real meat of our stay will include meetings with the many stakeholders that have been involved and concerned with food deserts in Birmingham.  We are all looking forward to getting into the thick of the issues.  This Saturday, we will actually be taken to a couple of the food desert areas and will be given a certain amount of money and we will need to try and find the ingredients for a meal by shopping where the residents in the food deserts shop.  We will bring what we find back to our base and cook and eat a meal using the ingredients.  This is give us a much better understanding of the challenges the residents in these food desert areas face.  The next few days look to be challenging but will ultimate help us frame the problems and start to formulate so short, medium, and long term solutions.

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