Home & Family
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—The COVID-19 pandemic left many throughout Alabama wondering if they would have access to fresh food. Food pantries restricted access, schools closed for multiple months and many felt unsafe traveling to grocery stores.
As Alabama residents continued to look for information about how to continue feeding their families, End Child Hunger in Alabama (ECHA), an initiative of Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI), partnered with a New York-based nonprofit organization to make it easy for Alabama families to find food resources in one place.
The Food Guide
HSI launched the End Child Hunger in Alabama County Food Guide Project in March 2020. The food guide is a map of all Alabama counties and a guide to help people in need find food nearby. The site is a comprehensive, one-stop-shop for available food resources in each county. It includes information on SNAP and WIC resources.
Malerie Goodman, ECHA County Food Guide coordinator, said the project was specifically developed at the beginning of the pandemic to meet the needs of children and families in crisis.
“As we were watching this all happen, we realized there were organizations doing things that people were not finding out about,” Goodman said. “Or if the information was there, you had to go looking for it.”
Goodman said ECHA collaborated with Sharemeals.org and also received an in-kind grant from Airtable to create a massive, cloud-based spreadsheet, which houses information about food resources in all Alabama counties. The ECHA County Food Guide is updated in real-time.
ECHA and Alabama Cooperative Extension System SNAP-Ed at Auburn University formed a partnership with a goal in mind: developing a comprehensive food guide. SNAP-Ed educators have always sought to develop and maintain partnerships relating to food access, even before the pandemic.
SNAP-Ed educators working in Alabama counties supported the project as ambassadors.
Goodman said SNAP-Ed educators have valuable knowledge of organizations in their counties. Their networks played a vital role in filling in specific details about food access points—such as necessary forms of identification, hours of operations and COVID-19 precautions.
“Auburn SNAP-Ed educators really value personal connections they have throughout their counties, which allowed us to help individuals with specific needs in a given area,” Goodman said.
Meagan Taylor, SNAP-Ed educator in Lauderdale County, said the food guide was a vital tool for parents to find food for their children who were typically in school at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We were able to help parents figure out what time meals were going to be served, where to go and if anything was needed to pick up the food,” Taylor said. “Every school system in the state was doing something different, so it was important that SNAP-Ed educators could use their contacts to update the food guide in real-time.”
Food Guide Makes a Difference
Taylor said food banks and pantries in Lauderdale County were operating primarily as drive-thru or pick-up, but open at different times. The guide was also able to connect residents to a number to call or a door to knock on.
Taylor created a flyer for the Florence mayor’s monthly newsletter for food guide promotion. The newsletter went to more than 8,000 residents.
Cindy Harper, SNAP-Ed educator in St. Clair County, said at the onset of the pandemic, much of the food resource information circulating in her county wasn’t current. She said many resources found online were no longer available. Additionally, the organizations helping people were making changes so quickly that it was challenging to keep up with them.
“It is so important to have up-to-date information in one easy-to-find location so those searching for food resources can get what they need,” Harper said. “I feel the ECHA food guides do just that. Having ambassadors who are familiar with their counties helps keep that information current.”
Natalie Jaroch, ECHA volunteer coordinator, works closely with SNAP-Ed educators to update the guide. She said SNAP-Ed educators were the bridge to the communities needed for ECHA to accomplish its goal.
“We know what’s going on with hunger in Alabama at large, but SNAP-Ed educators provided us with valuable knowledge of counties as well as relationship connections,” Jaroch said. “I think that was the biggest value the SNAP-Ed educators brought to our project.”
Dominguez Hurry, SNAP-Ed educator in Bullock and Macon County, said the ECHA Food Guide is a resource that helps people in a matter of minutes.
“When we are asked by people in the community who need help immediately, we can turn to the ECHA Food Guide and have resources right away,” Hurry said. “Without it, many people during the pandemic could have been in much worse situations. That, alone, makes the guide something essential to the state of Alabama.”
Through the diligent work of volunteers, the food guide launched with nearly 2,000 resources. Through their partnership with SNAP-Ed, Goodman said the directory has more than 7,000 resources as of mid-April.
For more information about the ECHA County Food Guide Project, visit aub.ie/foodguides.