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Delta Fresh Foods Is Bringing Food Security to Northern Mississippi

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.

Delta Fresh was created with the idea of developing sustainable food systems to address the chronic health issues here—obesity, diabetes, infant mortality.

Julian D. Miller, a co-founder of the organization and a longtime board member, works as an attorney and the director of the pre-law program 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.

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.

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.

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