Students put on Taste of Tuscaloosa to raise more than $4,000 to fight childhood food insecurity

Augustus Barnette, Staff Reporter

Over $4,000 was raised to fight food insecurity during a weeklong event called Taste of Tuscaloosa: Showcasing Local Traditions to Benefit Secret Meals, which was put on by students in The University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. The event had its final celebration on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Moe’s Original BBQ in downtown Tuscaloosa, following a week of percentage days around town, including at The Baked Bear, The Pants Store and Juice Bar.  

Benefiting Secret Meals For Hungry Children, Taste of Tuscaloosa was supported by local businesses so that the final celebration could have a silent auction to raise money for children facing food insecurity.  

Secret Meals was started in 2008 by Alabama Credit Union to feed children facing food insecurity in Alabama and northern Florida, both of which have some of the highest poverty rates in the country. 

According to Secret Meals, 1 in 5 Alabama children face food insecurity, especially during the weekends since many rely on free and reduced meals from their school during the week. Secret Meals creates vitamin-fortified food packs that are discreetly slipped into children’s backpacks by school professionals who notice signs of food insecurity. 

According to Taste of Tuscaloosa, children facing food insecurity may be at higher risk for repeating grades in school, chronic health conditions, oral health problems, social difficulty and behavioral issues.  

Items in the auction included but were not limited to a basketball signed by Crimson Tide head basketball coach Nate Oats and baskets from local establishments, such as Ernest & Hadley Books and Alabama Vintage, featuring gift cards and other merchandise. All donations and proceeds from the silent auction went directly toward making food packs. 

Though a successful event on its own, Taste of Tuscaloosa is a part of an upper-level advertising and public relations course, APR 419, that explores students’ conception and implementation of fundraising events.  

Susan Daria, the instructor for the class, said the course allows students to use the information they have already learned to try and execute these kinds of events. 

“Everything that they do as far as this project is part of what you would do in public relations. … They have to work with the media, they have to create relationships with possible venues and with community partners of all types, and those are the things that they learned to do in earlier classes, but they might not have ever had a chance to actually put to tactical use,” Daria said. “I give them free rein. … My philosophy on teaching is trust in their education, let them do the work, and give them a chance to get out there and show what they can do, and they always exceed my expectations.” 

Daria has been using the service-learning approach for 11 years now. She said she values not just the charity itself, but the relationship she’s created with Secret Meals as well.  

“This is going into our twelfth year of working with this particular program. I use them every single year, but they’re phenomenal because they understand the class,” Daria said. “They are wonderful clients, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this project for this long had we not been working with the Alabama Credit Union, because they are so supportive of my students.” 

Nicole Fulgham, the community involvement coordinator at Alabama Credit Union, seconded the valuable connection between Daria’s class and Secret Meals. 

“We’re super excited about these events because it gives us flexibility, and it gives us some new ideas for the credit union as well as to bring money in for Secret Meals,” Fulgham said “These students work so hard, and we’re just so excited to celebrate what it means. It’s our eleventh year with Ms. Daria’s classes, so she’s made a huge impact in the community and raised over $250,000 in that time period, so we’re super excited to get her to $300,000.”  

According to Secret Meals, just $140 can feed a child every weekend for a whole school year. Currently, they provide food packs for approximately 2,500 students across Alabama and northern Florida. 

Jesse Joiner, marketing assistant for the Alabama Credit Union and former student of Daria’s, said she believes the way Secret Meals handles things is crucial to its success. 

“I just fell in love with the program, and I think it’s so unique because every dollar really does go toward buying the food packs for the students, so you know exactly where your donation is going,” Joiner said. “I think that’s key for a successful program.” 

Fulgham built off of what Joiner said, providing more context into the way Alabama Credit Union, and Secret Meals, conduct operations.  

“Alabama Credit Union started Secret Meals in 2008, and since then, they have paid all operational costs for the program. There’s no salaries that come out of our fundraising budget, everything is paid for by the credit union, so like Jesse said, everything that’s donated goes straight towards those impacts,” Fulgham said.  

Since Alabama Credit Union provides the operational costs, students in Daria’s class can put on fundraising events without worrying about the cost of things like printing, which is completely covered by the ACU. 

Finding venues, sponsors and in-kind donations like the ones used in Taste of Tuscaloosa’s silent auction, is completely up to the students. All of the venues, like Moe’s Original BBQ, give their spaces for the night as a charitable gift. The silent auction items were also donated to the event, so Taste of Tuscaloosa relied on local businesses to give to the Secret Meals cause. 

Ava Marante, a Taste of Tuscaloosa team member and senior majoring in public relations, said she hoped the event would capture the essence of Tuscaloosa and, in turn, raise awareness for childhood food insecurity. 

“We showcase a lot of the Tuscaloosa traditions by bringing in restaurants that were created here in Tuscaloosa, and stores, like Alabama Vintage. We thought we could really bring in people to come to our event through giving them a taste of Tuscaloosa and showcasing all the places that make this town so great,” Marante said.  

Though Marante found difficulty narrowing down exactly which sponsors she was most excited about sponsoring Taste of Tuscaloosa, she said she particularly enjoyed a few being a part of the project.  

“We have had a lot of great sponsors and donations, but I would have to say personally, my favorite basket has to be the Taco Casa basket, they offered a lot of stuff in there and how could I forget the Nate Oates basketball, that is absolutely amazing,” Marante said.  

While the list is extensive, sponsors for Taste of Tuscaloosa included Taco Casa, Alabama Vintage, River, Ernest and Hadley, Rounders and more. Overall, the event had 17 baskets ready to be bid on, with even more sponsors and collaborators. 

Despite being a student project, Taste of Tuscaloosa — and Daria’s curriculum as a whole — go to show that work done by students can impact Tuscaloosa far beyond grades and The University of Alabama.  

Events such as Taste of Tuscaloosa occur every semester, so even if Taste of Tuscaloosa slipped by the wayside, student-run fundraisers are not leaving Tuscaloosa any time soon.  

To donate to Secret Meals directly, visit here. To learn more about upcoming events with Alabama Credit Union and Secret Meals, check out their Instagram and website.