Food Insecurity, Deadlines, and Master’s Projects

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The last few weeks have been busy ones. The next few weeks will most likely be busy, too.

I’ve been neglecting this blog, but it’s for a good reason. The website I have been working on, Food Insecurity Tuscaloosa, is finally live and only has a few kinks, which we are currently working out. The site is a result of weeks and weeks of work. I worked on all of the journalistic work, and Spencer Baer, a fellow student at Alabama, designed the site and wrote the code for it. It’s been a long ride, but we are finally putting the finishing touches on the site and I’m breathing a sigh of relief that it came together like it did.

So, now that I have my first website build under my belt, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned, and what I will do differently next time.

1. Start early, start early, start early. Those with more experience in web building laughed in my face (literally) when I told them I was building an entire site from the ground up in a matter of months. I can’t go back, but if I had the knowledge I do now, I would have come into graduate school with a detailed plan of what I wanted to do, and started on it long before Christmas 2013. In reality, we really began work on the site during Christmas break, and I keep thinking of elements I would love to add to the site that I don’t have time for now.

2. Set detailed goals and make a plan. Write it out. On paper. When I say detailed, I mean minutely detailed. Every small facet of the site should have its own point on your to-do list. That will make it easier to get things done, and easier to know what you still have to do. Also, make small goals for yourself for each day, week, or whatever time frame you are on.

3. Scour the web for sites dealing with your subject, or for web design that you could use. Better yet, have ideas of what you want to do in mind and constantly be on the lookout for stuff on the web that can help. I search Pinterest, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Google, and magazines for different ideas. The site deals with food insecurity in Tuscaloosa, so I was constantly looking for news articles on the subject, too.

4. Learn code, or find a gem like Spencer who will program your site for you. I was the only one of my classmates who did not use a pre-made WordPress theme. Their sites are all phenomenal, don’t get me wrong. I am constantly amazed with the journalistic and design work that my classmates are doing. However, because Spencer wrote the theme for the site himself, we were able to fully customize the site to my exact preferences. On my to-do list for this year is to learn how to write code (wildin’ I know).

5. Don’t Wait. More than anything, what I have learned from this year is that building your own site is easy and anyone can do it with the right help and will power. There were days when I wanted to burn every mention of food insecurity or food desert within a 100 mile radius, days when I literally pulled my hair out, and days when I stayed in bed and binge-watched unenjoyable television simply because I was so tired of looking at a website in progress. I can’t tell you how proud I am of what we produced, though, and hopefully it will make a slight difference in food insecurity in the Tuscaloosa area. After working on this project, I am constantly thinking of new ideas for blogging and site production that I want to start…if only I can find the time.

It’s been a rocky journey, and I’m not quite finished yet, but I have grown and acquired so much skill throughout the process that it was entirely worth the late nights, bad moods, migraines, and criticism from professors. Feel free to take a look, find the site here.

Driving the Mini Food Pantry: Getting Involved with Food Insecurity in Tuscaloosa

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Photo from heritage.org, data from the U.S. Census Bureau

“When my family and I moved to Tuscaloosa from Germany, everyone was so giving and welcoming—I guess this is just my way of giving back to a place and people that allowed me to call Tuscaloosa home,”

Nothing quite so refreshing as talking to Sabine Nad, the warehouse manager at the West Alabama Food Bank. I mentioned her in an earlier post as being my “jolt back to reality.” This past Tuesday, I spent the afternoon driving the “Mini Food Pantry” with Sabine. The pantry delivers 3000-5000 pounds of food a week to the six housing authorities in Tuscaloosa.

On Tuesday, we made seven stops at Hay Court, a housing complex on the west end of Tuscaloosa, near Stillman College. Just like her words, my spirit and enthusiasm for the project was renewed after spending five hours in Hayes Court handing out bags of food.

You can read statistics all day long, and they help, surely, but there is nothing like getting out on the ground and actually meeting people who are living with food insecurity.

Wednesday I served at the Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, which runs five days a week, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church Tuscaloosa. Amy Grinstead is the director of the soup kitchen, and set me up with volunteer times. Amy was also very careful to point out individuals at the kitchen who would be amicable about discussing food insecurity on a personal level.

Again, nothing like seeing it.

I see the frustration some taxpayers have with government-funded welfare programs. Some individuals come in with their hair done and nice clothes on, but cannot afford to feed their families. If we were being really thorough, studies on food insecurity need to be accompanied by studies on coping mechanisms in rural west Alabama—Tuscaloosa included. Alabama Possible offers some clear data on the status of food insecurity and poverty in the state.

The more research I do on the topic, and the further embedded I get into the community and the Tuscaloosa chunk of food insecurity, the more I realize how many different “sides” there are to the problem. Creating a website about food insecurity could potentially involve years of work, loads of different components, and so many more people involved than what will be mentioned in my small site.

While I am glad I’m starting work on it, it also frustrates me that the sites that my classmates and I create will quite possibly become stagnant after we leave, simply because we aren’t in the area nor do we have the time or resources to keep up the sites.

I guess I started out mildly caring about what I was creating, and it since has become my baby—and my first fully-manifested creation. It’s also made me care ten-thousand fold more about the people of Tuscaloosa, especially those who don’t have a voice.

Why I’m Bringing Food Insecurity Home

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The picture above is the current state of my kitchen cabinet. I realize most college students have a bag of chips and a six-pack of Bud, but I like to cook. The negative aspect of liking to cook is my issue with buying ingredients with no plans of what to cook from them.

So I’ll lay it out in the open.

As noted in the “About Me” section on this site, I am a graduate student in the community journalism program at Alabama. Instead of a thesis, we create a website that works to solve/help a community issue. My site, still in production, will focus on food insecurity in the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala. The site is coming along like a dream, and I’m really excited about the subject matter and the people I am working with.  An issue with my relationship with the site recently occurred to me, though.

I am spending an entire year working on raising awareness about an issue and working closely with residents of the city who deal with that specific issue on a daily basis. If you look in my cabinet at home, though, piles of unopened, unused food lay in wait for the eager consumer that never comes.

My cabinet is only one facet of my life that exemplifies excessive living. When eating, I eat far too much, and only stop when I can’t take any more. When I am stressed, I go to the nearest store and buy a fleeting piece of happiness. My closet is overflowing with clothes, yet I often find myself complaining of “having nothing to wear.” I realize this is the status quo for most middle-class college women. We are a nation of consumers.

 It’s a sad existence, though. While I would like to say I’m better than the average bear about being grateful for what I have and refraining from excessive spending, in all honesty I’m pretty guilty.

New year, new project, new rules. I want to live more minimally.

 To coincide with the production of the site, I’m putting myself on a strict budget (tighter than usual anyway), and making a few goals.

  1. Only 2-3 meals out a week. I know most of you are simply better people than I am, but I eat out…a lot. I’m in class and I work long hours, so at the end of the day it’s often easier to grab takeout. However, it’s unhealthy, expensive, and the people I am documenting don’t have that luxury.
  2. I’ll begin this process by eating my way through my cabinet. This could get interesting, but I have so many odds and ends in my cabinet that just sit there week after week. It’s a spring-cleaning of sorts.
  3. Unnecessary purchases will have a budget, and will be kept to a minimum. Experiences and travel stick around for a lot longer than the shoes I’ve been eyeing online, and feel better to purchase, too. I’ve been saying I’ll save my money for a while; it’s time to start doing it.
  4. Volunteering with the organizations I’m associated with for the project will happen 2-4 times monthly. I will be spending a lot of time around these places already, but to truly be an active participant in my project, I need to be getting down and dirty and doing some manual labor.
  5. The Gratitude Journal. My mom recently gifted me with One Thousand Gifts, a book chronicling one woman’s search for gratitude. It’s a spiritual book, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been meaning to read it for a while and now is the perfect time to do it. However you find your blessings, it’s important to take note of them. While I’m reading the book, I’ll be keeping a daily journal discussing ten blessings I’ve been gifted.

This list is across the board, but I’ve been noticing a lack of gratitude and of awareness in myself for a while now, even though I’m working on something that requires empathy and awareness. The blessing and responsibility of being a thinker and a creator is that I must choose to create something that benefits both myself individually and the community around me.

Here we go.