The University of Alabama

UA Researchers to Map West Alabama Food Insecurity

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Dr. Scott Parrott and Chip Brantley

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —Two researchers in The University of Alabama’s journalism department were awarded $8,000 from the Knight Foundation and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to study food insecurity in West Alabama.

“Food-insecure areas are where people have limited or non-existent access to healthy food,” said Dr. Scott Parrott, assistant journalism professor. “Much of West Alabama is rural and poverty stricken, so someone might not have access to a grocery store that sells fruits and vegetables and other foods they need to have a healthy lifestyle. Many only have access to gas stations, convenience stores and fast food restaurants, which are inexpensive and unhealthy.”

Chip Brantley, journalism senior lecturer, and Parrott will teach a class in fall 2014 and spring 2015, respectively, that will get undergraduate students involved in the process. Students will use the “Ushahidi” app, which was developed with funding from the Knight Foundation, to map grocery-store locations in rural West Alabama and also to track less traditional food sources, like gas stations, convenience stores, farmers’ markets and roadside food stands.

The students will then do more conventional journalism work of putting faces to the data by telling the stories of consumers in these communities, along with the challenges they face due to lack of healthy food options.

“One-third of Alabama residents are obese, which brings on other health complications and influences their daily lives in terms of social interactions,” Parrott said. “Our project is a digital approach to traditional social journalism, where you have a major social issue that needs to be examined in-depth, hopefully with an eye on change and bringing greater understanding.”

Brantley said it only makes sense the researchers at UA would tackle the issue.

“I think we have an obligation to do this sort of thing in this part of the state, especially,” Brantley said. “Problems like obesity and related health issues are most prevalent in Alabama within 50 miles of here, and these problems have only been getting worse in recent years.”

Parrott and Brantley said they will also seek help from community members to complete the project, including assistance with mapping “off-the-grid” food resources like roadside stands and small farmers markets. They hope the project will shed light on the reasons for the prevalence of certain health issues in West Alabama and also that it will set in motion future solutions for these issues.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.