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Layoffs, pay cuts and potential closures: Alabama hospitals strapped for cash

Pickens County Medical Center was the most recent rural hospital in Alabama to close. It closed in early March before the coronavirus.
Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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More than half of Alabama’s hospitals were already in a precarious situation before coronavirus.

About 52 percent of the state’s hospitals had negative total margins before COVID-19, and 75 percent of them had negative operating margins, according to Alabama Hospital Association President Donald Williamson.

In layman’s terms, they were bleeding money.

Rural hospitals were in much worse shape. Nearly 90 percent of them had negative operating margins before the coronavirus outbreak. In the last eight years, at least 13 hospitals have closed in the state. More than half were in rural areas.

The last to close was Pickens County Medical Center in Carrollton, Alabama, which closed last month, leaving the rural county west of Tuscaloosa without a hospital. The next-closest hospital is more than 30 miles away.

But with COVID-19 impacting nearly every aspect of life, even in Alabama’s least-populated counties, hospitals, especially the small ones, have gone from bleeding money to hemorrhaging it.

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“Hospitals around the country are struggling. Everyone’s bleeding. It’s just that we have less blood,” said Ryan Kelly, the executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, a group that represents the state’s rural hospitals and clinics. “If everyone is dying, we’re going to die quicker. It’s not a good position to be in.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus has forced officials to take extraordinary measures to protect the public. But these measures, meant to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed, are also exposing a deep and precarious situation underlying Alabama’s health care system.

Smaller budgets mean less to trim. There is only so much that can be cut. And if it was trimmable, these cash-strapped hospitals have probably already cut it. More efficiency can’t solve these hospitals’ problems.

The pandemic prompted state officials to cancel elective procedures, which are generally more profitable and account for a large portion of most hospitals’ revenues.

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“Elective surgeries were really the only way some of these hospitals could make money,” Williamson said. “Coronavirus is seriously stressing hospitals.”

But elective procedures being canceled or postponed is not the only hit hospitals are taking. Sources of revenue from many other nonessential services have also dried up.

“They can’t really do a lot of wellness and prevention, because that’s not high on people’s radar, either,” Kelly said of the rural hospitals. “We’ve kind of built our health care infrastructure to be more wellness and prevention heavy. And that was great until something like this when wellness and prevention are seen more as luxuries. Now we’re back to just treating the sick patients, especially the critically sick.”

Fewer patients are showing up in emergency rooms, Kelly said, further cutting into costs. Telehealth and telemedicine is a growing revenue stream at these hospitals, but it is not yet in a position to match the lost revenue.

“It’s a tough position for everyone to be in,” Kelly said. “Most of our revenue was built off these other procedures that have largely stopped or, at a minimum, slowed.”

According to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, about a quarter of Alabama’s 45 rural hospitals are among a few hundred rural hospitals across the country considered “most vulnerable” to closure. The same report found that rural hospitals in states that have not expanded Medicaid are more vulnerable to closure.

Kelly said Medicaid expansion, at this point, wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” to solve the financial problems facing the state’s rural hospitals, though it could help. The Alabama Hospital Association, though, has advocated for Medicaid expansion to bolster revenues for the state’s hospitals and expand health care access.

Hospitals across the state have lower bed occupancy as officials prepare surge capacity ahead of what is anticipated to be a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations by mid-April. As of Tuesday morning, hospitals across the state were at about 50 percent occupancy, Williamson said, down from 70 percent on a normal day.

Williamson also fears that hospitals could be forced to eat the costs of treating uninsured COVID-19 patients who may require hospitalization as the outbreak spreads. The state’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — when most of the cost of the expansion would have been borne by the federal government — has resulted in a larger uninsured population in Alabama. Some 16 to 20 percent of adults in the state are uninsured. Bearing the cost of that uncompensated care could add to the strain.

One of Congress’s coronavirus response bills, the CARES Act, has $100 billion in funding for hospitals across the country. But that cash has not arrived yet, and no hospital is certain how much money it will get and if it will be enough to stabilize the balance sheets.

“Once it begins to be distributed, that will serve as a major help for hospitals, but it’s just not there right now,” Williamson said.

And many of the state’s hospitals don’t have a lot of money on hand to wait weeks or months for help. Some only have days, especially the rural hospitals, Kelly said.

“I would say that you could put good money on another hospital or two or four closing, but I’m certainly praying that does not happen,” Kelly said. “But really these hospitals only have days or weeks of cash on hand. You disrupt that revenue cycle any, and you could end up in a pretty big predicament.”

Kelly said some estimates have said hospitals could face a 20 percent cut in revenue during the COVID-19 crisis — maybe even more. “I have not talked to a single facility yet that has said their business was normal,” Kelly said.

The dire budgetary situation facing more than half of the state’s hospitals has forced some to lay off health care workers and support staff and cut the pay or hours of some of those who can’t stop working.

Williamson and Kelly said they were aware of hospitals being forced to take these cost-cutting measures, but they did not have numbers to show how many hospitals have needed to do so and how many workers and providers have been affected.

Workers at hospitals are not the only health care workers affected by the virus. Dentists, providers at smaller clinics, rehab specialists and other medical practitioners have also been forced to scale back or temporarily shut down operations.

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, some 7,324 health care and social assistance workers filed an initial jobless claim for unemployment insurance in Alabama during the week ending March 28.

Even the state’s larger hospitals like Huntsville Hospital and DCH in Tuscaloosa have cut back the hours of workers in nonessential areas. Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said at a briefing last week that the medical system would lose millions of dollars every month during the pandemic.

Williamson and Kelly said hospitals are doing everything they can to avoid cutting pay or laying off workers. When layoffs have been required, they said they have been in areas that would be the last to respond to COVID-19 cases and the least likely to affect a hospital’s ability to handle a surge.

“But that’s still not ideal,” Kelly said. “Let alone the fact that we need our hospitals right now to be ready in case there’s a surge of COVID-19 cases. So the last thing we want to do is just shut down operations when we might need it.”

The state’s hospitals are facing other problems, too, including shortages of personal protective equipment, Williamson said.

“I’ve got some hospitals that are telling me they have maybe a week’s worth of PPE,” Williamson said. “I’ve got a few others that are feeling that their shortages are more immediate.”

Hospitals have been trying to source PPE — including masks, gowns and gloves — from non-traditional suppliers, through donations and through the state. The Alabama Department of Public Health has secured some additional PPE, Williamson said.

The shortage is causing the prices to go up and making obtaining those essential supplies difficult.

“It is concerning how difficult it is to get,” Williamson said. “But I certainly don’t think we’re in the situation of New York.”

While the state’s largest hospitals like UAB in Birmingham, Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, EAMC in Lee County and DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa will likely bear the brunt of the COVID-19 patient surge, rural hospitals are not immune from it.

Many are already treating COVID-19 patients, Kelly said, and they may be needed to help alleviate the burden on the larger hospitals, Williamson said.

“When you look at how you manage surge, you start by eliminating elective procedures because you want to free up beds,” Williamson said. “But the next part of that plan is you take people who may not have COVID, who may not need the level of acute care provided in urban hospitals, and you transfer some of those patients into, say, a rural hospital.”

But that surge plan requires those rural hospitals to be there to be able to help.

“We’re just trying to hang on,” Kelly said. “You know, targeting cuts and layoffs, and conserve money as best as possible but still be ready for patients coming in. That’s the position that most hospitals are in.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Health

Average daily coronavirus cases in Alabama reach new highs as hospitalizations surge

“It’s incredibly important right now to maintain your bubble, to wear your mask, maintain distancing and wash your hands,” UAB’s Dr. Kierstin Kennedy said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/ADPH DATA)

Alabama on Tuesday saw record-high seven and 14-day averages for new daily COVID-19 cases, and the second-highest number of new daily reported cases, following the record high set less than two weeks ago. 

The state added 2,785 cases Tuesday, less than 200 under the Nov. 13 record of 2,980. While the Alabama Department of Public Health on Oct. 23 reported 3,852 cases, 1,287 of those were older positive antigen tests conducted in June through October and submitted by a facility in Mobile, which skewed that day’s count higher. 

The state’s seven and 14-day averages for new daily cases were 2,288 and 2,164 respectively on Tuesday, and the average percentage of tests positive over the last two weeks was 22 percent — more than four times as high as public health experts say it needs to be to guarantee cases aren’t going undetected. 

Coronavirus hospitalizations in Alabama on Tuesday reached 1,428. That’s as high as they’ve been since Aug. 11. Huntsville Hospital was treating a record 270 coronavirus patients on Tuesday. 

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Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, told reporters Monday that hospitals are seeing much higher numbers both because of the influx of COVID-19 patients and non-coronavirus patients. 

“We are definitely seeing the highest numbers that I’ve taken care of in my almost 10 years of being a hospitalist here,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy and other medical professionals in recent days have urged the public to take precautions during Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays or risk spreading the disease further by infecting themselves or loved ones. 

Dr. Racheal Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, said Monday that Alabama’s positivity rate is so high that if 15 people gather there is between a 30 and 50 percent chance that one in the group has COVID-19 and could be without symptoms. 

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“If we think about that, 15 doesn’t sound like a lot of people, and that may be a small gathering for some, but we really need to remind ourselves that a lot of people are asymptomatic before they’re symptomatic,” Lee said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health suggests that to cut disease transmission over Thanksgiving hold small dinners with only those living in your own household, have virtual dinners with those outside of your household and shop online rather than in person for Black Friday deals. 

“What I have heard is that we should expect some of the highest numbers actually in the third week of January, because of all of this commingling and intermingling of families,” Kennedy said.  “It’s incredibly important right now to maintain your bubble, to wear your mask, maintain distancing and wash your hands.”

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Health

Last Conversations: Aunt Cheryl

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.”

Kristen Bolden

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Photos of Kristen Bolden and her Aunt Cheryl. (CONTRIBUTED)

“Everyone needs help from time to time.” That was the last text my Aunt Cheryl sent to me on Saturday, May 16, 2020, at 9:36 a.m. She sent a few others over the next week or so to our various group texts, but that was her last message to me personally. It was in reference to me arguing over my grandparents insisting on helping me pay for a new car after my old one had been totaled the week before. I couldn’t let them do that, but as she was told, I helped my grandparents out a lot, and they wanted to help me too. 

She didn’t know then — just like I didn’t know then — that a little over a month later, she would die in a hospital in Shelby County after contracting COVID-19. She didn’t know that her simple message to just accept help from my family would push me to actually seek professional help a few months later and sign up for therapy again.

My aunt was a bright and funny person. The joke was that my mom had her sister’s kids on accident. My aunt and I were a lot alike. She called me her travel buddy and would take me to New York with her. Once we were lucky enough to stand next to a group of German firefighters while watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Our group pictures are some of my favorites, and the moment became one of her favorites to share. She sent me and a friend to New Zealand one year. For our last big trip, she took me to Gatlinburg for the first time and stood by ready to drive our group back to the cabin after an impromptu moonshine tasting. While she didn’t like her moonshine, she loved her Talladega County muscadine wine.

My aunt taught me the finer points of traveling and, honestly, about a lot of life things. Things my mom was probably ok with her teaching me — like how to use humor to be charming or having another good model for being a hard worker. There were also things my mom was probably not ok with her teaching me — like driving fast down a winding Highway 78 from Leeds to Prescott or how to say “I know” every time someone would tell me how cute I was as a kid. (It’s a thing I still accidentally do at nearly 31. Thanks, Aunt C.)

Ever the dog lover, there were five running around her house at one point. “That’s what I want,” I would think to myself. “Dogs everywhere. Some land. And next to my grandparents.”

The house with all the dogs is where she lived with her then-husband after she returned to Alabama. They moved there just as I was about to graduate high school in 2008. At that point, I knew we had a relationship when I was very young, then she moved around the States a lot, and we didn’t see much of her. The places I can most remember her are in Arizona (we visited her in Tucson and fed a squirrel at the Grand Canyon), Seattle (where she met Harrison Ford), Alaska (where she lived near a glacier) and Minneapolis (where it’s just real dang cold). When she moved back, that’s when our relationship really took off. 

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I went to the University of Alabama, her favorite and my rival. Luckily, it didn’t cause too many issues as Alabama has a very good football team and Auburn has a pretty good football team. One time my car broke down, so she and my mom drove down to Tuscaloosa from Pell City so I could use her car for a few days. I’d end up driving her old green Suzuki a lot over the next few years. 

When I moved for my first job in the summer of 2014, she and my grandmother helped me pack the Penske and drive north to Peoria, Illinois. I wasn’t prepared in any way, shape or form for said move, but she got me there regardless. When I moved back to Alabama eight months later for my second job, yep, you guessed it: She rolled up in the Jeep with my grandparents in tow, ready to move me back.

Over the next four years, we saw each other regularly. She got me in touch with a family friend whose house I was able to rent, just two or three minutes from my grandparents. My Aunt Cheryl helped me set up the place where I’d live, sleep, eat, cry, binge watch TV, play with my dog and jokingly make cereal as my potluck dish for any get-togethers we’d have. I was pretty hopeless in the kitchen at the time.

Holidays felt like my childhood days again, with everyone at my grandparents’ house, laughing, eating and opening presents, being generally loud and joyful. I worry about the holidays feeling empty this year and perhaps every year from now on.

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In December 2017, I was able to travel to New York City with her again. This time, I’d be a witness to her wedding in Central Park. She married her last (and best) husband John just outside of the Bethesda Fountain. It snowed the day before (also my 28th birthday) and was perfect for pictures. John’s younger daughter Tiffany was also a witness. I imagine we both cherish the photos from that day differently now. 

John and my aunt were fun to watch together. They laughed a lot, smiled all the time, in turn making everyone else happy. I think that was her goal in life. They had a lovely little place on Logan Martin we’d go visit every now and then. They’d take my grandparents fishing on the boat while I tanned and read books on the dock. I know being there full-time was actually her goal in life.

I moved to Boise, Idaho, for a new job in March 2019. It was pouring rain, but she and John and our friend were there to help me pack up, clean up and get on the road. By this point, she told me she was too old to move me again and drag all my stuff around the country, but she’d help me get started. Driving away to a new place without her or anyone of my family members in sight was the strangest feeling. 

She was an avid NASCAR fan, but one of her favorite stories to tell didn’t even involve the racetrack. For a time, she worked at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds where they often had drivers come in on Talladega race weekends and do autograph signings. One year, Tony Stewart — her absolute favorite — came in for a signing. I went with her, and as she liked to put it, he made small talk with me while haphazardly signing the picture for her without even looking up. She then further backed up this claim by sharing that on our dinner date at Guadalajara post-signing fiasco, our server handed her the receipt without even asking who was paying — another sign of me being a regular charmer.

I was happy to have her on my hype team, even if it wasn’t totally accurate. 

I scored four Talladega tickets and pit passes for the October 2017 race — mine and my mom’s driver’s last one. We said goodbye to Dale Jr. as my aunt and John walked around enjoying the sights and sounds. By this point, my aunt had moved on to Kyle Larson. I don’t remember where Junior or Kyle finished that race, but I remember having a good time seeing my loved ones enjoy the day.

When she passed, that’s the picture I changed my Facebook icon to in memory of that moment. 

My family members gathered together near the end of May to work on my grandparents’ floors. I Skyped in with them that day because they were all together, and I had nothing to do as my car had just been totaled a few days before. We laughed. We caught up. We cut up. It was the last time we were all “together.” Everyone had been taking precautions because of my grandparents’ ages and my aunt’s cancer.

Four days later, I pulled into my parking spot outside my duplex in my new car and got a text from my aunt. John had tested positive for COVID. She was supposed to quarantine away from him, but I feel like it was too late at that point. She was waiting to start treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in early March, followed by surgery a few weeks later. She told my mom and me she was going to be furious if she had to put it off because of COVID. 

My grandmother would also test positive. After a few weeks, she and John both recovered. Only a couple of days after my aunt texted us, she was running a fever and had body aches. She was on a BiPAP machine at Shelby Baptist in Alabaster. A day later, she was intubated. She’d spend three weeks on a ventilator, her condition going up and down every few days, with doctors and nurses and pulmonologists doing everything they could think of to save her.

My mom said she didn’t even look like herself because of all the IV fluid and illness, and we shouldn’t have to see it. I sometimes try to imagine it, but I can’t and don’t want to. 

The last time I saw her was December 2019 when I visited home for my birthday and Christmas. That’s how I want to remember her. With all of us and my grandmother’s giant Christmas tree. Laughing and catching up. Joking about how I probably have a line of people at my door, waiting to take me out on a date. 

She was taken off support and died at some point during the rain-delayed Talladega race on Monday, June 22. It’s so weird that the biggest personality in our family died during her favorite race at the biggest track in the NASCAR family. That’s a terrible analogy, but I think it would make her laugh.

When I posted my tribute on social media, the comments poured in from people she worked with all around the country, people she went to school with, people who knew her through others, dozens of comments talking about how shocking her death is. How funny she is. Her sweetness. Her sometimes brutal honesty. How they never expected this to happen to Cheryl. I would say “join the club,” but I don’t want them to go through this. Instead, I find comfort in their comments and that she was exactly who I thought she was — for better or for worse. I try to remember she was a tough lady who at one point drove an 18-wheeler. She could push through this, and so could I. 

After my mom first told our group chat how quickly my aunt’s condition was deteriorating, I asked if I should come home. Not a single person in our family would let it happen because it wasn’t safe to do so then, and five months later, it still isn’t safe. Instead, I would wait for daily updates around 9:30 a.m. while I was sitting at work. I’d get sick to my stomach after looking up at the clock to see it was nearly that time. I was 2,000 miles from home, unable to help, unable to do anything but sit at my desk before going home and lying in bed, hoping I would just go to sleep instead of staying awake and crying. I would “tweet thru the pain” as the kids say some nights, hoping someone would see it and know I was hurting. I was mostly doing fine living alone at that point, but from my aunt’s hospital admission to August, I’d never felt more alone in my entire life. 

I work in local television news so I’m used to working weird hours, spending holidays either alone or with fellow news orphans, and knowing I’m probably going to move at some point in the next few years. I’d already been terrified to move to Boise because I’m so used to worrying about my grandparents, but this was completely rattling. The stories I’d run in my newscasts about people being separated from family members or loved ones suffering from COVID, the stories I’d read online about people saying goodbye from miles and miles, even countries away from each other, were now about my life. 

Her service was held on Sunday, July 5, at Kilgroe Funeral Home in Leeds, the place next to the ever-changing restaurant on top of the hill I’d gone to to say goodbye to friends, family members and others I knew my entire life. Except this time, I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t give her a proper goodbye as she actually passed, and I couldn’t in the wake of her death. Instead, I walked my dog around the Boise State campus, stopping to cry on a bench or a set of stairs a couple of times when it all became too much. I didn’t care that I was in public. If someone had seen me and asked, I would’ve let them know what happened and told them to wear a mask. 

My aunt was cremated, another thing I still cannot wrap my head around. She and John’s dog Layla had to be put down earlier this year. Their ashes are now in his possession, something I’m grateful for as I know they’ll both be taken care of with love. 

I was able to go home the first week of October. I drove to Alabama from Idaho and back. I took every precaution. Nobody got sick. I was terrified for a month anyway.

It hurt so much to know I was there and I would see John, but I would not see her. The pain is apparent on everyone’s faces still, but there’s nothing to be done at this point. I spend time angry at people not taking measures to keep themselves or others safe, but I can’t stay angry forever and I’m mad about that too. 

I hate I can’t text her about a funny thing my dog did or that when I send a Christmas card, she won’t see it. If I do end up settling down, she won’t be there. Sometimes I think whoever I end up with might be lucky because they’ll skip her hazing, but I also know they would have loved her sense of humor. I hate that it’ll be the same way for my younger sister. I hate that my grandfather gets misty-eyed when he remembers her. I hate that my grandmother has to be so matter-of-fact about the loss of one of her children to accept it. I hate that my mother had to be the one to carry us all through it while losing her sister. 

In the end, I just miss my Aunt Cheryl. If there’s anything I’ve learned from her loss, it’s that she is right. Everyone does need help from time to time.

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Legislature

The Alabama Senate will be under new leadership in 2021

The caucus unanimously elected Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, as the new pro tem. 

Josh Moon

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Alabama State Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper

The Alabama Senate will be under new leadership when the 2021 legislative session begins. 

Del Marsh, who has served as president pro tem of the senate since 2010, announced that he wouldn’t be seeking a leadership role during a Republican caucus vote held Monday. The caucus unanimously elected Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, as the new pro tem. 

The caucus also selected Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, as the new majority leader, a position Reed has held for the last several years. 

Marsh’s decision not to seek the leadership role wasn’t particularly surprising. Numerous ALGOP lawmakers have said privately over the last two years that Marsh has toyed with the idea of stepping down and handing the position to Reed. Marsh also announced last month that he won’t seek re-election to the Senate when his term ends in 2022, bringing to a close a 24-year tenure. 

In a particularly candid interview with his hometown newspaper, the Anniston Star, in October, Marsh indicated that he had grown tired of politics altogether due to the hyper-partisan climate and was unlikely to seek any public office. He also blamed President Donald Trump for helping to create a toxic climate. 

“I’ll be darned if I want to go up there and fight all of the time,” Marsh said in the Star interview. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to end the animosity. I blame [President] Trump for part of this. What happens on the national level — the fighting and name-calling — filters down to the state.”

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For Reed and Scofield, the moves up the ladder weren’t exactly speedy. They’ve each served in the senate since 2010, and Reed has served as majority leader since 2014.

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News

Poarch Creek Indians partners with Sweet Grown Alabama

The tribe’s support will be used to fund traditional and digital marketing to encourage buying local, according to the nonprofit’s press release. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Poarch Creek Indians have joined eight other organizations as founding members and supporters of the nonprofit Sweet Grown Alabama.

The Poarch Creek Indians have joined eight other organizations as founding members and supporters of the nonprofit Sweet Grown Alabama, which aims to help consumers find locally grown produce and products, the nonprofit announced Monday. 

“I am excited to announce our support of Sweet Grown Alabama,” said Stephanie Bryan, Tribal chair and CEO, in a statement. “We are always looking for ways to support Alabama’s economy and this important initiative will educate Alabamians about products that are grown and bred in our own backyards.”

The tribe’s support will be used to fund traditional and digital marketing to encourage buying local, according to the nonprofit’s press release. 

“This financial support from the Poarch Creek Indians will have a positive ripple effect on Alabama’s economy,” said Ellie Watson, Sweet Grown Alabama’s director, in a statement. “The Tribe has a strong reputation of community support and economic development, and we are incredibly grateful for their sponsorship of Sweet Grown Alabama at the highest level.”    

Other founding members and supporters of the nonprofit, which formed in September, are the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Farm Credit, Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Alfa Farmers, First South Farm Credit, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, Alabama AG Credit and Alabama Association of RC&D Councils. 

To learn more about Sweet Grown Alabama or to find locally grown produce and products visit the nonprofit’s website here.

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