Birmingham Council Clears Way to Become First Alabama City With a Healthy Food Incentive Program

Feb. 28, 2017 – During a nearly hour-long debate between Birmingham City Councilors and members of the city’s law department, the council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday to make Birmingham the first Alabama city with a Healthy Food Incentive Program.

The program will cost $2 million, which will be allocated from the city’s general fund budget for fiscal 2018, and it is slated to begin Aug. 1. Essentially, the ordinance would allow qualified recipients to receive a food incentive card to be used toward the purchase of eligible foods at participating stores. The cards would have a value of up to $150 annually and take the form of either a debit card or voucher.

Before the vote, Councilor Lashunda Scales objected to the city’s law department having “gone week to week discussing the same thing,” referring to changes in the language and the proposed launch date of the program.

“We make plenty of time for economic development. When do we make the time to help the poor people?” Scales said, directing her comments to assistant city attorney Tracy Roberts.

There was some confusion among councilors as they discussed which changes had been made to the measure and whether it was an ordinance or a resolution. Specifics about dates that had been changed accounted for a large part of the conversation.

The tense exchanges revealed fissures between the mayor’s office and City Council when it comes to what Councilor Steven Hoyt called the “highly politicized law department.” Hoyt pointedly criticized city attorneys working for the mayor’s office as having not moved quickly enough on the Healthy Food Incentive Program.

“Scales is absolutely right,” Hoyt said. “The mantra of the law department is. ‘Tell us what we can’t do.’ It’s just not consistent. It’s strictly subjective. You need to represent the council in the same spirit as the mayor’s office. This is something that will be of great benefit for citizens and every week you’ve come in here saying you haven’t dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.”

After nearly an hour, Jarvis Patton, the mayor’s chief of operations, said he was “highly offended” by some of the comments levied toward the law department.

“You came to us with problems and we attempt to give you something legally sound,” Patton said. “Then we were told it doesn’t meet the standards. … You got three legal scholars on your staff. Why don’t you ask them for assistance? It happens time and time again. You won’t see our administration playing politics.”

Hoyt retorted by calling Patton a “phantom” as the discussion wound to a close.

Setting up the Program

Details of the ordinance were made available to the press after the long exchange. It states that the city should advertise and take bids on an administrator for the program for the first year. After that, contracts can be awarded for up to three years, “subject to availability of funding.”

The administrator would be in charge of distributing the funds to qualified applicants.

According to Council President Johnathan Austin, the administrator fees will be taken from the $2 million allocated for the program.

Austin said he hopes Tuesday’s vote sends a message to legislators who will be faced with the question of whether to remove sales tax from groceries.

Earlier this month Gov. Robert Bentley called for the state to remove taxes on groceries. Similar measures have been introduced but failed before the Legislature in recent years. Alabama is currently one of four states that still has a grocery tax, which Austin said puts a burden on low-income families.

Austin said Birmingham has a responsibility to show the state Legislature the importance of “doing the right thing.”

Applicants will have from April 15 to June 30 to enroll in the program, according to the ordinance. While it is unclear exactly what constitutes “healthy food,” Austin said fresh produce and possibly some meats will be accessible through the program.

Initial numbers indicate that between 40,000 and 50,000 people in Birmingham could qualify for assistance.

“This is a great day,” Austin said. “We just want to be able to provide some relief for people struggling to put food on the table.”

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BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper are collaborating to cover Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.