WhyHunger kicks off phase two of the Building Community Power to Eliminate Food Deserts project.
By Alison M. Cohen, Director of Programs
The Mississippi Delta is getting fresh! Delta Fresh, that is. WhyHunger is back in Mississippi to kick off phase two of the Building Community Power to Eliminate Food Deserts project. A full year has passed since 130 stakeholders representing agriculture, public health, markets, community gardens, schools, universities, emergency food providers and other community-based organizations throughout the Mississippi Delta gathered to identify their common ground in working to increase access to fresh, healthy food The Delta Fresh Foods Initiative (Delta Fresh) was the result and a committed, passionate group of people have been meeting monthly for a year to broker connections, design projects and add value to each other’s independent efforts.
Our first day down south we met Ryan Betz and Josh Davis of the Delta Health Alliance (DHA) who took us on an early morning tour of three community gardens. Driving from Jackson to Humphreys County where we were to meet Ryan and Josh at the ubiquitous Dollar General store in Belzoni (pronounced belzon-ah), the dormant cotton, corn and sweet potato fields sprawled on either side of the two-lane highway. The occasional pecan orchard dotted the landscape – robust trunks sprouting naked branches, evidence that winter travels below the Mason-Dixon line. We found ourselves – two women from New York City – discussing no-till farming methods and trying to identify cover crop varieties while brightly-covered small crop dusters flew overhead dropping fertilizer, presumably, on Mississippi’s cash crops as the temperatures began to signal that planting season had begun.
Delta Health Alliance (DHA) has been a central partner in the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative since its inception and has recently taken on the role of WhyHunger’s local partner and fiscal agent for the network. Founded in 2001, the Delta Health Alliance is a partnership of the Delta Council and many of the major universities in Mississippi that service the Delta region. What makes DHA such a logical partner for WhyHunger is its core emphasis on community-based programs that work to not just deliver services but to fundamentally transform communities to address critical healthcare issues and overcome wellness gaps in the Delta – of which there are plenty. More than 60% of the Mississippi Delta population consists of African Americans who are disproportionately struggling with diet-related disease and an alarming lack of access to basic health care services. Mississippi is the most rural state in our nation and ranks #1 for obesity and poverty in the U.S. and #2 for diabetes. Scarce public transportation options complicate access to health care facilities, which by-and-large are located in the few and far between urban areas of the Delta. DHA takes on these challenges by working in partnership with community-based organizations, schools, churches, local governments and by establishing clinics and wellness programs. They aim to increase access to health care and provide education to encourage citizens to adopt healthy lifestyles.
One of the innovations that Delta Health Alliance brings to its approach to health education is the establishment of and advocacy for community gardens. More and more research is drawing strong connections between improved public health and the presence of community gardens that engage local community members in gardening and consuming and sharing the harvest. Since 2009, DHA has helped install 36 gardens in 8 counties on church property as a part of their 21ST Century program’s Church Garden Project. The congregation takes care of the garden and reaps the rewards of the harvest. The one we visited at the St. James Missionary Baptist Church, close to Indianola, MS, was visible from the two-lane highway and nestled between the church and a “yard” full of modern agricultural implements anchored by three massive silos. The juxtaposition of the still productive church garden (there were turnips a-plenty ready to be harvested and mustard greens that were only slightly withered by the recent frost) and the silos brought to mind the necessary co-existence and tension of high-tech, industrialized ag for cash crops that dominate the landscape in Mississippi, and the fledgling movement throughout the Delta to establish gardens to help stem the diet-related health crisis.
The Belzoni garden is essentially a community-based public-private partnership. On a large parcel of private property that connects the Dollar General and the Upper Room Church along Highway 49, the Belzoni Community Garden consists of a dozen or more raised beds outfitted with drip irrigation, 20 recently-planted apple and pear trees and, as yet, an uncultivated half acre or so of land. The church donated the property for the purpose of community gardening; Mayor Wardell Warton is promoting the garden; Humphreys County is donating and hauling soil and mulch; the DHA’s 21st Century Gorton Clinic provides the nutrition education anchor, a small cash grant for materials and a consultant to provide technical assistance in farming techniques, and the time of one of DHA’s project managers – Ryan Betz. Ryan has worked closely with local officials, church leadership and the health clinic to organize the community, including inaugurating a garden leadership committee who assigns plots and recruits members (annual plots are rented for $40 and general membership costs $5). By all accounts the local investment in this garden is strong and they haven’t even completed a full season. One of the County Supervisors – Clayton Jones – stopped by while we were trudging through the muddy fields and waxed poetically with a preacher-cum-politician kind of rhetoric about the dire need for healthy lifestyles in Humphreys County and how this garden was going to help Belzoni’s citizens eat good food, build community, and beautify the town – all in one fell swoop. Whether it was his preacher-like style or our own visions of youth, seniors, health workers, church goers, and public officials all working together as they picked beans and greens or sold tomatoes at a roadside stand or sat in the shade of the apple and pear trees some years in the future, we left the site buzzing with ideas and full of hope.
The town of Leland was our next and final stop. On a large parcel of fenced-in, city-owned land hidden behind an old army barracks was the nascent Leland Community garden. Like the Belzoni garden it is in its infancy but already boasts neatly defined raised beds, irrigation tape, a compost area and multiple berry bushes along the back fence. Leland opted for easily-transplantable bushes over permanent fruit trees; the city – although excited about the possibilities of the garden – is hedging its bets. Once the garden takes off and is fully embraced by the community, the mayor has indicated more permanent garden infrastructure and additional land will follow. Leland has a gem of a local advocate for this garden. The Leland Health Council’s coordinator Jesse Tyler’s hulking ex-football player’s presence, coupled with his sweet demeanor and toothy smile was instantly engaging and we fell into a familiar banter as he described the origins of the garden and the collaboration with the Delta Health Alliance. Jesse claims to have known nothing about gardening when assigned the task of engaging the community in building and – ultimately – maintaining the garden. Apparently he’s a quick study. With Ryan’s assistance, Jesse has emerged as a very capable community organizer and speaks meaningfully about his hopes and plans for the role the garden will play in recreating a healthy Leland.
Later that afternoon, we headed up to Clarksdale and gathered around the table of the monthly meeting of the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative steering committee. This dedicated group of folks, representing a diversity of perspectives and approaches all stemming from deep roots and long experience in the Delta, had a lively discussion as to how to best support initiatives like the community gardens we had just visited. Where is the best starting point when building a healthy local food hub? Do you build farmers’ markets to create a meeting point for the producers and the consumers? Or do you need to develop more growers so that there is plenty of product to offer at the market? And what if no one shops at the market because we haven’t yet spent time educating consumers to cook with healthy food or because they simply cannot afford it? The opportunity in the network they’re developing is that each group represented at the table is already engaged in at least one aspect of building a local food system that meets the needs of everyone in the communities where they live and work. Their challenge is how to connect those efforts and take the next steps together towards a healthier and fresher Delta. We think their up to the challenge.