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From Cotton to Collards
To combat obesity, Alabama turns to farmers' markets
by Mark Winne
November/December 2006

A peach within reach: Don Wambles connects farmers and consumers through Alabama's Farmers Market Authority "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign.
DANYA WALLS IS A YOUNG, SINGLE MOTHER living in Blount County, Alabama, a hilly piece of Dixie halfway between Birmingham and Huntsville. Like others on limited incomes, Walls juggles her household's economic and physical health. Even with government assistance, she says, "my primary motivator when it comes to food shopping is financial." And when it comes to how her family eats, she has a problem that's all too common in the Deep South: "Food that is Southern is fried," says Walls. "That's how I was raised."

Walls is caught between her growing awareness of nutrition and a food tradition that perpetuates obesity and diabetes. Her state may be ground zero for these national epidemics. According to the Trust for America's Health, Alabama has the second-highest percentage of adult obesity (28.9 percent) in the nation. This is largely the reason that 440,000 Alabamians, about 10 percent of the state's population, have been diagnosed with diabetes, a figure that has nearly doubled since 1994. Such statistics portend a grim future: This generation of children may have a shorter life span than their parents.

When physical work was an everyday feature of Southern life, fried foods' extra calories were burned off toiling in the fields and factories. But as the computer and television replaced the mule and forge, the traditional Southern diet became a source of harm rather than fuel. So with a new twist on its agrarian past, Alabama has turned to farmers' markets as a way to connect people like Walls to sources of healthy, locally grown food. From 17 locations in 1999 to 92 today, Alabama has a farmers' market in nearly every one of its 67 counties.

The person most responsible for this meteoric rise is Don Wambles, director of the state Farmers Market Authority (FMA). A cotton and peanut farmer for 21 years and a former Republican county commissioner, Wambles has led a quiet revolution in Alabama agriculture.

"Over the course of my farming career, I'd have one good year in four," Wambles says. Like other commodity producers, he saw his crop prices stay flat while his costs went up. "I was tired of fighting a losing battle, so I got out of farming." Wambles decided to urge his fellow cotton farmers to grow fresh produce instead for direct sale to consumers.

But Wambles also needed a way to attract consumers--which he discovered in the form of a federally funded program for low-income households with the ungainly title of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. The effort, which serves more than 2.5 million people each year in 45 states, provides nutrition education and $10 to $30 coupons to low-income women and children annually to purchase fresh produce at farmers' markets. Wambles also tapped into a similar program for seniors, which serves more than 800,000 low-income senior citizens across the country. Each year, the programs dole out approximately $20 million and $15 million, respectively, nationwide.

By 2005, the FMA and its partner agencies were distributing just under $2 million in coupons to 80,000 seniors, women, and children in Alabama. The results: An additional one million pounds of local fresh fruits and vegetables were consumed by the Alabamians who needed it most, 1,400 farmers started making serious money at local farmers' markets, and some of those farmers began shifting acreage from heavily subsidized and pesticide-intensive cotton to produce.

IT'S 93 DEGREES IN GREENE COUNTY one June morning, but the suffocating heat inside the farmers' market shed doesn't stop Eugene Hall's frenetic pacing. Hall is a contagiously enthusiastic man, and his excitement over the potential of Alabama's small farmers to renew impoverished rural communities is palpable. With funds received from the FMA, Hall and Willie Busby, his string-bean-thin partner--both longtime farmers--created the popular Greene County farmers' market.

"Build it and they will come," says Hall. What excites him is the idea of hundreds of thriving watermelon and collard patches; his dream is to stem the out-migration of young people from farms to urban areas, as well as the devastating effects of unhealthy eating. "The farmers' market can be one thing that revives our community," Hall asserts. Greene County is poor, and its population is dispersed across a sparse rural landscape. Its low-income families received $18,400 in farmers' market coupons in 2005, a big incentive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers' market.

On the Gulf Coast, Mobile farmer Art Sessions was one of the state's first big growers to turn to farmers' markets. At Wambles's urging, he gave the Mobile operation a try; his success there led him to reduce his cotton acreage and increase his retail fruit and vegetable production. "Cotton subsidies might take a big hit in the next farm bill," Sessions speculates, adding that "over 25 percent of my produce sales now come from senior citizens and WIC moms. This is one of the few federal programs that really works."

State surveys of recipients uniformly conclude that farmers' market coupons stimulate increased consumption of fresh produce, which is one way to prevent obesity. But with only $1.8 million to dish out each year, Wambles knows that he can only make a dent in the obesity problem. (Fortunately, the issue is now getting wider attention. As Danya Walls says: "If it wasn't for Oprah, I'd still be using bacon grease instead of olive oil.")

Increasing the ability of low-income consumers to buy fresh produce would pay off immediately. Some food-policy advocates suggest, for example, diverting 10 percent of the $66 million in federal cotton subsidies received by Alabama in 2004 to its farmers' market program. Proponents have estimated that could allow the state to more than double the number of people it serves as well as the amount each person receives. Combined with a greater investment in other obesity-prevention strategies, Alabama could trim the billions it now spends on diet-related medical expenses.

Washington is getting the message about healthy foods: In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a proposed rule change that would give low-income women and children an additional $6 to $8 per month to purchase fruits and vegetables. Though not earmarked specifically for fresh and locally grown food, the vouchers could be spent at farmers' markets.

The environment could win as well. A shift from the production of row crops like cotton to fruits and vegetables would reduce both energy use to transport food and chemical-laden irrigation water. According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, our current food production and distribution system uses 4 to 17 times more fuel and releases 5 to 17 times more carbon dioxide than locally based ones. And Wambles notes that Alabama's smaller-scale fruit and vegetable farms are incorporating drip-irrigation systems that "spoon-feed water to vegetable crops, which, in turn, means lower water usage and very little chemical runoff."

From the halls of Congress to the farmers' market sheds of Greene County, there is plenty of debate about what will help farmers, protect the environment, and tame obesity's deadly spiral. But low-income consumer Walls brings the discussion home. "We eat a lot more fruits and vegetables when the farmers' markets are open," she says. "It's good for my children to know where their food comes from. I want them to know a farmer grew it."

Mark Winne writes about food issues from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Sierra Club activists in Alabama promote healthy diets--and farms--one freshly picked carrot at a time. The Club's Building Environmental Community local-foods campaign sponsors farmers' market festivals and "Farm Day" tours, where participants can see how food is grown sustainably--all while feasting on the freshest of meals. The campaign helped persuade the state to study the needs of family farms and works with the Club's Water Sentinels program to fight factory farming. To read more, go to and

"Green Cuisine" logo by Greg Mably, photo by Billy Brown

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