Pastor finds food is key to community comeback

By Sally Allocca, Special Contributor…

In my 20 years in the East Lake neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala., I have had the opportunity to talk to seniors and others in the area about childhood memories of a vibrant, living community: walks to the corner drugstore, fresh food at local markets, movies at the area theater, and boat rides on the lake in the park.

As a latecomer to this neighborhood, my experience began with loss of infrastructure—churches and stores moving to greener pastures, burned-out houses and a reputation of crime, drugs and blight. Churches that remained in the area and various social service agencies sought answers and resources, but were met with a lack of funds, aging congregations and constituents moving out of the changing, declining neighborhood. The neighborhood faced a 25 percent poverty rate, mounting crime and an extremely negative public perception.

Sally Allocca

Eight years ago, a group of committed neighborhood and church volunteers and I dreamed up Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources (P.E.E.R., Inc.), an organization defined by its name to work with, and not simply on behalf of, those in our community. This group began the uphill climb of seeking funds, gathering resources and information, and listening to the voices of the people in the neighborhood. We struggled to find our niche, initially helping people do their taxes, hosting health fairs and coordinating an after-school program. But soon, we settled on health initiatives specifically in the area of access to fresh, healthy food. We figured, everybody eats, so this would be a way to connect everyone to a common goal and resource.

We started by founding the East Lake Farmers Market, a small market offering fresh produce from local farms, live music, homemade pastries and children’s activities. Some told us that we did not have a successful business plan—the location was wrong and the target audience was wrong. But we dug in our heels, seeking not success, but effective change in access to fresh food and educating folks about its benefits. We offered cooking demonstrations, recipes and preparation tips. We held free health screenings to make people more aware of health issues and how they can take control of their own health.

Within two years, the market developed and now supports a co-op for individuals and groups. We also deliver 100 to 150 boxes of fresh produce free of charge to neighborhood seniors with low incomes every Saturday of the market season.

This year, due in large part to a Farmers Market Promotion Program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture combined with our increasing local support system, we have greatly expanded our scope and programs:

• We accept SNAP benefits as well as Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program benefits at the farmers market and at our mobile market.

• We venture out into our community in a brightly colored mobile market bus with fresh produce, selling “fresh and healthy” with a smile to day cares and senior centers and housing projects.

• Our community kitchen initiated a culinary training program with local unemployed neighborhood residents.

• We prepared food for our summer feeding program for children in several summer camps and also started a summer hot lunch delivery to senior facilities in the neighborhood.

In the last eight years, the market has grown in size and popularity. It has become about more than access to fresh food. It is a venue for the community to come together, to reconnect, and to revitalize.

Since the market’s beginning, many other groups have risen up in the neighborhood, including a merchants’ group and an arts district. Homes are being refurbished, perceptions changed and hope is growing. It seems that we simply needed someone to shine a light on the wealth of opportunity that already existed in this neighborhood for people to band together to build, to create and to offer support.

P.E.E.R., Inc., has made great strides in providing access to fresh, healthy food. Our efforts have gained in popularity and attention from a larger population, but our hearts and the needs are still here in our own neighborhood. Our continued effort is to increase not just the access, but the desire for fresh food. Therefore, we will continue to set the table, prepare the food and invite our neighbors to join the feast.

The Rev. Sally Allocca is the founder and executive director of Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources and longtime pastor of East Lake UMC in Birmingham, Ala. The White House recently named her one of 11 “Champions of Change” on the issue of strengthening food security. This column was written for the Champions of Change blog.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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Thank you for the witness! Passing this on to a great church I serve that already has recovered an orchard toward providing fresh fruit to local food pantry…and has a great community presence. God bless and keep you.

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