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.
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.
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.