Also in this week’s Field Report, a deeper look at the global fertilizer cartel, and the political battle over SNAP continues.
October 27, 2021
Though the Mississippi Delta is home to some of the nation’s most fertile soil, residents of the region have experienced food insecurity and poverty for generations. In fact, an estimated 77 percent of Mississippi’s 82 counties meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of food deserts, meaning they lack full-service grocery stores and other food retail establishments.
Determined to remedy this problem, a group of community stakeholders established the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative in 2010. Delta Fresh uses mobile markets sourced by community farms to expand access to locally grown fresh food, improve diabetes and obesity, and increase economic opportunities for local farmers. In Bolivar County, in northwestern Mississippi, where the organization has concentrated its efforts, 37.5 percent of adults report an obesity-level body mass index, and 16.5 percent report a diabetes diagnosis. To quash such health problems, Delta Fresh has supplied more than 5,000 North Bolivar County residents with fresh fruits and vegetables.
By tapping into the sustainable community food systems that already exist in the Delta, the organization—made up of growers, funders, health and agriculture educators, food retailers, and community-based organizations—aims to build supply and demand for fresh foods. To that end, Delta Fresh also provides training and technical assistance for sustainable growers, consumers, and advocates, and to young people interested in developing community food systems.
In addition to running farms, the young people Delta Fresh trains surveyed community members in 2017 about the barriers they face to accessing fresh produce and found that 88 percent of respondents would support a mobile market to increase how many locally grown foods they could buy. Now, four years later, the Delta Fresh Foods Mobile Produce Market has provided local fruits and vegetables to thousands of residents, and, if needed, they can use SNAP benefits to make purchases. On the supply side, the local growers who provide fruits and vegetables receive stipends for participating in the mobile market.
While Delta Fresh has focused its work in northern Bolivar County, the organization’s goal is to replicate its efforts statewide, and it has already expanded its outreach to Quitman and Hinds counties. Hinds is home to Jackson, the state’s capital and most populous city; Jackson is 82.2 percent Black, making it one of the nation’s most African American cities as well. At 25.4 percent, the city’s poverty rate is more than double the national poverty rate of 11.4 percent, indicating why food insecurity and other socioeconomic problems persist there. But wherever Delta Fresh’s “Good Food Revolution” goes, its leaders say, the initiative considers the specific needs of the communities it serves.
Julian D. Miller, a co-founder of the organization and a longtime board member, works as an attorney and the director of the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice at Tougaloo College in Jackson and as an assistant professor of political science there. He helped Delta Fresh receive more than $1 million in grant funding to develop local community food systems. Civil Eats spoke with Miller about Delta Fresh, as well as food insecurity in Mississippi, the importance of involving young people in food advocacy, and the link between the food justice and civil rights movements.
What’s the origin story behind Delta Fresh?
This is the second-poorest region in the U.S. behind Appalachia. Historically, it has some of the most fertile soil in the world, but the reality is it’s dominated by corporate agro-farming, and local growers capture a [miniscule] amount of the food market in the Delta. Because of the agrarian nature of the area, the legacy of slavery, the level of poverty, [the area] has basically been marked by low-wage jobs and worker exploitation.
Delta Fresh was created with the idea of developing sustainable food systems to address the chronic health issues here—obesity, diabetes, infant mortality. The idea was to develop a sustainable food system in the Delta with a workable, concrete model to address those chronic health issues by providing locally grown fresh foods and creating a sustainable economy.
How did you get involved with this work?
I’m a lifelong fifth-generation Mississippi Delta [resident]. After college, before I went to law school, I did anti-poverty work for an organization, and the goal was to figure out how to build collective action and project approaches that can be leveraged to address long-term chronic issues of economic injustice and poverty in the Delta. Naturally, the idea to develop food system work was really gold, because it hit both economic justice and worker exploitation and issues with wages, as well as preventative health, to deal with chronic illnesses.
Then, I got together with a huge group of farmers and organizers in 2010. One group was engaged in greener agriculture and had already been pioneering organic farming in the ‘90s. They were farmers from the Delta, mostly Bolivar County, led by Dorothy Grady Scarborough, who is a legend and pioneer and who mentored me in this work. So, we had growers, farmers, health practitioners. We had about 125 organizers who got together to form this organization, Delta Fresh Foods.
What did Delta Fresh set out to accomplish when it first started?
In 2010 when we started, we did over 30 community garden projects. We pioneered the Mississippi Farm to School project. We started bringing in school districts so they could have local growers supply their cafeterias with food. But we wanted to figure out how to develop a sustainable food system, community by community, county by county, that will be unique to those particular counties and communities in the Delta, and that way we can have the local citizens take ownership of it.
Then we decided we’re going to focus on Bolivar County, where I’m from and where a big chunk of our co-founders are originally from. It was a good fit, and we had really good partnerships there with local growers. Also, Alcorn State University had a demonstration farm in Mound Bayou, in Bolivar County.
In 2017, through a generous grant from the Bolivar Medical Center Foundation, we started working on our youth-led projects. From there, we developed a mobile market led by the youth in partnership with six growers, and we traveled around selling local produce. Then, we developed our own youth-led six-acre farm. We have a goal to scale this model and to be a model for other counties to replicate food system development.
What work are you doing as director of the Anderson Institute for Social Justice at Tougaloo College?
We developed a sustainable food system project on the campus of historic Tougaloo College, where I’m on the faculty with the pre-law program. We built raised beds and developed our production through raised beds and a high tunnel. The goal is to supply the cafeteria at the school to provide students and faculty access to local, fresh foods and expand out to the greater community.
I’m part of a group called the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative, which is trying to work with organic farmers, growers, and food justice advocates across the state. They’re trying to develop this model statewide to really build up this industry and basically capture that multibillion-dollar food market for local growers, for the communities, and to create wealth and eliminate poverty in the Delta, and in Mississippi in general.
When you talk to people who aren’t from the Delta, are they surprised by the fact that there are so many food insecure people living in a region with such fertile soil?
Not when you explain to them the legacy of slavery and economic injustice. The land was exploited for the purposes of creating wealth through slave labor. Then, there was sharecropping in the Jim Crow era. After that, farming was mechanized, particularly in the ‘60s, and the land was monopolized. Black farmers who had been able to live on the land essentially lost that opportunity. Now, the land is ultimately used for [commodity] crops. It’s not used for growing local fresh foods, even though the soil is fertile. So, when you explain the history of exploitation through slavery and Jim Crow . . . they understand why [food security here] isn’t an anomaly.
What other factors make it hard for Delta residents to secure the food they need?
The issue in the rural Delta is transportation. In my town, we have to travel 12 miles to get access to groceries and other basic needs, and that’s why we have the mobile market. We come to your communities.
It’s the same here with our urban model. We know for Tougaloo, it’s going to be fairly easy for students to get access, because we provide food through the cafeteria. There’s also a food pantry on campus. With the urban model, there might be a situation where we still do a mobile market. We’re also thinking about doing a grocery store partnership. It just depends, but we want to make sure that the model is tailored to each particular community.
What more can you say about how Delta Fresh Foods is training young people?
We call them our Bolivar County Good Food Youth Ambassadors, and they have been trained in food production, distribution, and in understanding the public health aspects of food. They also get leadership development training as part of the program. They do different modules for these activities, but then they also get hands-on training because they run the farm.
The kids did part of their module in food production with mentor farmers. We had other modules in marketing and consumer education. They did pamphlets on food that we presented as part of our Healthy Food Kitchen Program, where we teach people how to cook the produce and whatnot, so the kids did presentations as part of that. And we had speakers brought in weekly.
How has life changed for residents who take part in the program?
Before, people were not health-conscious and focusing their diet on locally grown fresh produce. So, when this project began, it brought them out to come to the market, purchase this produce, and get access—and to really be engaged. As part of this project, we set up a local food policy and it really engaged the community in a collective way to support this work and, at the same time, to be more health conscious and take advantage of this initiative to change their diet.
What’s next for Delta Fresh Foods?
We’re trying to get more acres to expand our youth farm. The goal is to continue to scale this model in Bolivar County and replicate it in another county. At Tougaloo, and we’re looking into expanding our production and thinking about how we’re going to approach the community with that same mobile market model.
Additionally, we’re working on a public health equity project in Bolivar County to address infant mortality, which is a huge problem in the Delta. There’s a project called Delta Health Partners that does wonderful work in addressing infant mortality, so we want to work with a primary care physician to provide prescriptions for local fresh foods to address chronic illnesses. And we want to look at how that can address the chronic health issues of mothers and babies. Based on that, we want to propose getting Medicaid dollars to support local growers supporting prescriptions for fresh foods.
Do you see a connection between your work and historic Mississippi activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, who fought not just for civil rights but also to create more opportunities for Black farmers and growers?
Absolutely. A lot of people talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, but not a lot of people realize that she started a cooperative pig farm. I just took part in a social justice conference, and one of the topics these prodigious civil rights organizers and legends talked about was that there was this huge push for cooperative farms and how the idea of cooperative economics was a big part of the civil rights movement.
So, that’s kind of full circle, and that was a big part of what I talk about when pointing out how social justice, racial justice, economic justice, [and] food justice are intertwined. Community food system work is so crucial because it brings all these things together as one.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
June 7, 2023
Also in this week’s Field Report, a deeper look at the global fertilizer cartel, and the political battle over SNAP continues.
May 24, 2023
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