One of the world’s most fertile agricultural belts, the Delta imports nearly all of its food. Food purchases from local farmers account for only .03 percent of Delta food purchases, according to 2012 research by the Crossroads Resource Center. In fact, many Delta communities qualify as food deserts, defined as pockets with no nearby supermarket (over a mile away in urban environments, ten in rural ones). Delta locals without regular transportation often have no access to vegetables and fruits, increasing the likelihood of obesity and its associated health problems. Lacking access to stores, locals are often forced to grocery shop at nearby convenience stores and gas stations stocked with junk-calorie processed food items. Rural Delta counties average one supermarket per 190.5 square miles, according to a Southern Rural Development Center report. Statewide, over 70 percent of SNAP-eligible families live more than 30 miles away from a grocery store, according to the same SRDC report.
From its inception, Delta Directions has taken a leading role in strengthening the supply of local healthy food and the network of food growers. Efforts hold promise not only in terms of better health but also in an improved community economy. Project research indicates that boosting the purchase of locally grown produce to 15 percent of the average Delta resident’s food budget—a matter of $6.71 a week—would generate an extra $269 million annually to the local economy. Delta Directions programming has supported the development of these local food systems in the Delta and its advocacy has brought about policy changes that have supported local, healthy, sustainable foods throughout the state.
Farm to school
Delta Directions has had a longstanding involvement in farm to school efforts in Mississippi. Students from the Food Law and Policy Team of the Harvard Law School Mississippi Delta Project are building on these past efforts by partnering with the Mississippi Farm to School Network to research the feasibility of tax incentives for farmers that sell directly to schools, and other regulatory incentives that might encourage more farm to school sales.
Mississippi is one of only four states where people with past felony drug convictions are barred for life from accessing SNAP benefits (also known as “food stamps”). Delta Directions is partnering with 2nd Chance MS to provide research of the impacts of this restriction, and explore the possibility of reforming the SNAP law in Mississippi to remove this barrier.
Farm to School
Delta Directions has been an avid supporter of the Farm to School movement in Mississippi. Farm to School refers to any program that connects schools with local farmers and/or local foods. Such programs can help increase access to healthy foods, teach children healthy eating habits, and provide new markets for local farmers. Below are some of the ways that Delta Directions has helped promote Farm to School programs:
The “Delta Farm to School Initiative” is a collaboration between Delta Directions, the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, and the Delta Health Alliance. As part of this initiative, the Delta Fellow helped secure funds to hire a Farm to School Coordinator who was able to establish Farm to School programs in at least seven Delta school districts during his tenure.
Drafting a resolution creating a “Mississippi Farm to School Week.” Signed by the governor on May 3, 2012, the resolution encouraged schools to incorporate at least one locally-grown food into school meals during the week; it also clarified that farm to school initiatives are legal in Mississippi, demonstrated that the Legislature values using local farm produce in schools, and encouraged schools to start initiatives. Mississippi Farm to School Week is still celebrated every year during the first week of October.
Publishing comprehensive marketing and procurement guides aimed at schools and farmers interested in becoming involved in Farm to School Programs
Producing legislative recommendations to expand Farm to School programs
Helping to plan and organize the annual Mississippi Farm to Cafeteria Conference; hosted by the Mississippi Farm to School Network, the Conference brings together food service directors, farmers, and other stakeholders from across the state, providing an opportunity to highlight Farm to School success stories, train those who are new to Farm to School, troubleshoot common problems, and build collaborative networks.
Producing a short documentary, Garden of Hope, which provides information on Farm to School programs and success stories in Mississippi
Supporting two public schools in Clarksdale to establish school gardens
Partnering with the Mississippi Farm to School Network to draft a formal letter to the Mississippi Department of Education asking that the agency provide greater guidance to schools on how to use the Mississippi Food Farm Safety Checklist to ensure food safety when purchasing directly from farmers
Drafting a report compiling the ways that university extension services can support farm to school efforts
Developing an introductory guide for farm to school supporters in Mississippi on how to advocate for state legislative and regulatory change
Click here for an in-depth profile of one of our Farm to School partners, Mrs. Dorothy Grady-Scarborough.
Expanding Farm to School in Mississippi: Analysis and Recommendations (May 2011)
Legislative Recommendations for a Statewide Farm to School Bill in Mississippi (Nov. 2011)
Mississippi Food Policy Council
One of the first and most elemental achievements of Delta Directions was organizing the Mississippi Food Policy Council. In collaboration with the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, Delta Directions founded the council in 2010. Council membership is made up of stakeholders that include farmers, farmers market managers, health educators, and health professionals. The mission of the Mississippi Food Policy Council is to educate, advocate, and propose enhanced food and farm policies to build healthy communities and strengthen local food systems. Delta Directions remains an active member of the organization, and Delta Fellows have provided ongoing support through research projects, technical assistance, and overall Council development. With the help of Delta Directions and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Mississippi Food Policy Council changed seven laws over four years, impacting local food and food production in the state. These laws included eliminating sales tax at farmers markets, creating a Farm to School week, creating an interagency Farm to School task force, state authorization for city and county governments to fiscally support farmers markets, and a state “cottage food” law allowing low-risk foods made in a home kitchen to be offered for sale. In addition to its policy successes, Delta Directions has partnered with the Council to host Farm to Institution conferences and a variety of events.
Working with the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Mississippi Delta Project, the Mississippi Food Policy Council, and other partners, Delta Fellows have supported a range of initiatives to strengthen farmers markets in Mississippi. These endeavors include:
Creating a Mississippi Farmers Market Legal and Business Guide and conducting a training for farmers market managers managers in the Delta. This guide was published in Spring 2009 and updated in fall 2011.
Producing a set of legislative recommendations relating to farmers markets for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. In the years since these recommendations were first presented in 2009-2010, the majority have been adopted into law, including eliminating sales tax at farmers markets, allowing county and municipal governments to donate to farmers markets, allowing for the production of cottage foods, and disseminating wireless EBT machines to farmers markets.
Assisting the Delta State Institute for Community-Based Research to organize the Delta Regional Farmers Market Alliance. Started in 2008, this coalition of farmers market managers from around the Delta worked to assist Delta markets through coordination, public relations, advocacy, development, and training.
Helping the Clarksdale Farmers Market to grow its number of vendors and customers, develop a website, and establish the capacity to accept SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
Conducting surveys of farmers market managers and fruit and vegetable growers to identify barriers to expanding markets for local foods.
Mississippi Farmers Markets: Legislative Recommendations and Innovations to Sustain Farmers Market Development (Dec. 2009)
Increasing Federal Food Assistance Access at Farmers Markets in Mississippi: Analysis and Recommendations (Prepared May 2010, Updated Nov. 2010)
Legislative and Regulatory Recommendations to Allow Home-Processing of Low-Risk Foods in Mississippi (Dec. 2010)
Mississippi Farmers Markets: A Legal and Business Guide (Prepared April 2009, Updated April 2011)
Farm to School in Mississippi: A Step-by-Step Guide to Purchasing Mississippi Products (Fall 2012)
Farm to Institution: A Step-by-Step Guide to Selling Products to Local Institutions for Mississippi Growers (Fall 2013)
Farm to School in Mississippi: A Brief Guide to Purchasing Mississippi Products
Strengthening the Farm to School Movement in Mississippi: Strategies and Policy Goals (Sept. 2016)
Estate Succession and Land Loss
The number of black farmers and landowners in Mississippi has fallen steadily over the last century, due in part to the state’s inheritance laws. Despite a growing awareness that these laws make estate succession difficult for many black landowners – and the emergence of estate law reform movements in other southern states – no organization in Mississippi has addressed land loss in a comprehensive way. Building on research conducted by Harvard and University of Mississippi law students, Delta Directions partnered with the Transactional Law Clinic of the University of Mississippi School of Law to work on developing a guide to assist historically disadvantaged farmers around the state, providing them with information on inheritance laws and estate planning.
Additional Food Systems Publications:
Creating a More Efficient and Effective Food Safety System in Memphis and Shelby County (Aug. 2011)
“I Can Teach You to Eat” – Dorothy Grady-Scarborough
Combine years of experience as a Delta emergency room nurse with a family legacy of vegetable gardening, and the logical result is Dorothy Grady-Scarborough. Mrs. Grady-Scarborough is a pioneer of the region’s sustainable agriculture and food-supply movement. As a Bolivar County nurse appalled by the consequences of the staggering local rate of diabetes and high-blood pressure, she began advocating in 1994 for an increased availability of fresh produce to improve the local diet.
Mrs. Grady-Scarborough’s efforts—educating through area school gardens and founding the nonprofit Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (“MEGA”)—predated the concepts of food deserts and food insecurity coming into wide awareness. “I felt like I was talking in a silo.” These days MEGA takes up seven former Head Start trailers, a compound that serves as an educational and demonstration center in her hometown of Shelby. A Food Corps volunteer is based at the complex to help support the work. Mrs. Grady-Scarborough has trained through Tufts University and has participated in a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Grant.
It is also logical that Mrs. Grady-Scarborough and Delta Directions found themselves allies soon after the first Delta Fellow arrived in 2008. The initial fellow, Emily Broad Leib, realized that engaging in food-supply issues was a crucial part of the equation to improve Delta well-being. Delta Directions began investing time and resources into the region’s food supply challenge. Ms. Broad Leib spearheaded organizing a statewide food-policy stakeholders group. Using legal research by Ms. Broad Leib and the Harvard Mississippi Delta Project, the Mississippi Food Policy Council successfully pushed the Mississippi Legislature for seven state law changes that fostered farmers markets and streamlined their operation from a state regulatory standpoint.
Although fresh-food awareness has increased, the challenge of a sufficient produce supply continues in many Delta communities. An impromptu Saturday produce sale has begun taking place in Shelby, in the form of three or four farmers meeting to sell produce from their parked trucks. Buyer demand routinely surpasses the Saturday supply, Mrs. Grady-Scarborough said.
In addition, the small grocery store in Shelby stocks no produce. The closest full-scale supermarket is a 15-mile drive south of Cleveland. Shelby residents without cars sometimes pool funds to pay a car owner to drive them to the Cleveland supermarket she said. “Every five to ten miles, there should be a farmers market.”
Delta Directions’ relationship with the work of Mrs. Grady-Scarborough continued through the work of another Delta Fellow, Nathan Rosenberg, who was instrumental in strengthening the Farm to School movement in the state. Farm to School initiatives now operate in 54 school districts in Mississippi, eight in the Delta. The initiatives vary from district to district, but feature components including nutritional instruction, school gardens, and purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables for cafeteria meals.
Since 2014, Mrs. Grady-Scarborough and Sunny Baker of Oxford have served as co-chairs of the Mississippi Farm to School Network: “Sunny works more on procurement. I have the gardening-experience component.”
Educating children through Farm to School programs fits with her own passion for developing early healthy food habits. Positive experiences with fresh vegetables and fruits in childhood stand to improve the health of the Delta in the future. “If I can teach you to eat right now, I don’t have to correct these things later,” the nurse said.
In the North Bolivar County Consolidated School District, children sample locally grown vegetables, including kale and chard, for example. “Tell your mom how much you enjoyed it and include it on your list to buy at the grocery,” Mrs. Grady-Scarborough will suggest. Children grow tomatoes in the school garden and are sometimes sent home with a cup of four or five sprouted plants. “That’s how you have your own tomatoes at home.” Living in an apartment complex? “You can put it in a five-gallon bucket on the terrace,” she explains.
Fifty years ago, most Delta families kept gardens, a tradition that disappeared along with the number of locals who worked as farm laborers. In one of the world’s most fertile agricultural belts, the scarcity of fruits and vegetables is frustrating. “We’re not desperate for land, but we grow less food than any other part of the U.S.”
Her own family never abandoned the garden tradition, and her aging father never suffered from diabetes or high blood pressure. She believes continuing to keep a garden and the health benefits of the family produce helped explain his fortunate outcome. Her father remained an active vegetable grower well into his seventies, buying a new tiller a few months before his death in 1977. “Even in his dying days, he had a field of produce and fresh fruit.”