“Don’t just talk about it. Do it.”
A barrage of speakers gave their experienced perspectives on what is happening in Mississippi – and what can happen in the future – to connect the state’s rural and urban citizens through fresh locally grown food.
Speed said schools aren’t the only place for farmers and youth to connect. Childcare centers need food also, she said, and parents are asking those childcare centers to provide healthier foods more than ever.
Finally, Speed said having gardens at the schools helps educate children about what they are eating.
“If the kids grow it, they’re going to eat it,” Speed said.
“What is a Local Food System?”
Shelly Johnstone talked about the progress she’s been a part of in Hernando, MS, as manager of the Hernando Farmers Market, and through development of a food hub that would connect local growers with a wider market.
Edwin Marty from EAT South talked about each segment of our food system. He discussed production (growing plants and raising animals), processing (transforming and packaging), distribution (transporting, storing, and marketing), consumption (purchasing, preparing, and eating), and waste (composting and discarding). Marty emphasized that a food system could never be considered sustainable if it failed to account for waste.
Marty, who recently published a book, Breaking Through Concrete, asked the advocates in the room to create food systems with intention by thinking about the consequences of each decision they make.
Tupelo farmer Will Reed, who founded Native Son Farm in 2010, talked about his business, which involves selling his fresh produce through a CSA (community supported agriculture), to local restaurants, and through direct sales.
Reed said his goals are to be economically stable, influence healthy eating in the community, use environmentally stable practices, grow vegetables in nutrient rich soil, and add to the local culture. Reed listed a lack of infrastructure and a need for a better input supply chain as challenges to his business and to local food production in general.
Models and Innovations, Invigorating Local and Regional Economies
Paige Manning, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, began the third panel by discussing the growth of farmers markets in the state. In just a few years, markets have grown from around 20 to more than 70 (26 of those being certified). Manning stressed the benefits for state certification – which includes a sales tax exemption for growers – but pointed out that getting certified is not a difficult barrier to get past.
Mississippi state senator Gray Tollison discussed two bills aimed at supporting local food: HB 798 and HB 715. HB 798, the Healthy Food Retail Act, recently passed the House and is due for a vote in the Senate. It would seemingly provide healthy food retailers and non-profits access to funds through grants and loans.
HB 715 died in committee, however. It would have exempted certain cottage food producers (homemade products such as jellies and baked goods) from certain health code regulations.
Building Community, Opening Doors and Strengthening Partnerships
Jim Ewing, a journalist, author, and organic farmer from Lena, MS, moderated the final panel. Ewing recently published a book, Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating.
Karen Wynne came to Oxford from the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network to share her experiences connecting with non-profits, farmer cooperatives, schools, and other stakeholders in a regional food system. Her advice for anyone attempting to do the same was to look for authentic relationships, treat everyone like a leader, and support the organizations that are already doing the work they want to accomplish.
Keith Benson, a Holmes County, MS, native who works with the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture Production, had a clear message: “With whatever you are planning, make sure you plan it with the farmers.” Benson asserted that any sustainable food system would fail if the limited-resourced farmers were not supported, and therefore could not be relied upon to produce.
Benson added that a farmer’s most important needs are labor, equipment, and a reliable water source.
Glyen Holmes, another Holmes County native, began bringing food from farms to school in the mid-90s, and is still doing so with the New North Florida Cooperative. Holmes showed a video clip of a CBS news report that showed him driving a refrigerated truck of fresh vegetables to schools in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. He advised people trying to start similar projects to network, be professional, and to not promise more than you can do.
Mary Berry finished off the day by talking about her work with the Berry Center, a new organization based in Kentucky that is based on the work of her father Wendell Berry, her grandfather John M. Berry, Sr., and her uncle John M. Berry, Jr. The Berry Center’s goals include the study of small-farm agriculture and young-farmer education.
After a day packed with energized speakers, the conference was handed over to the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute on Saturday for their annual Sustainable Living Conference. Workshops included cooking from the garden year-round, how to make a worm bin, Mississippi edible perennials, green-building home improvements, a food policy council session with Mark Winne, canning, and home brewing, among many others.