It’s lunchtime in the Mississippi Delta and in Clarksdale-area cafeterias students are happily tearing into fresh, baked sweet potatoes. No need for any fancy prep – tin foil and oven heat did the trick.

Just this week, Delta producer C.W. “Doc” Davis delivered the fresh spuds – 3,000 pounds worth to seven schools in the Coahoma County and Mound Bayou school districts. As part of the recently-launched “Farm to School” effort, Davis will fill the same order several more times. And in doing so, a circle of benefits will be kept intact and fostered.

“Everyone wins,” says Ryan Betz, coordinator of the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative (DFFI). “Students are fed wholesome, local produce and educated on where their food comes from. The farmer makes money. The school districts are able to meet mandated nutrition guidelines and the overall community benefits.”

Davis’ delivery coincides with Mississippi’s inaugural Farm to School Week, which falls the first week of October. One reason for the push to promote healthier meals: the state’s children rank first in obesity in the country.

And farmers can be excited about the effort because of the market it helps open. Over 17 million meals are served in Mississippi Delta schools annually. Betz estimates that the Delta produce market for schools is between $15 million and $20 million annually.

DFFI

Several years ago, the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative kicked off following a “huge conference involving anyone around the Mississippi Delta interested in developing a food system within our region,” says Betz. After picking through notes and ideas brought to the conference, “we slowly began to shape and develop that food system. Really, this effort revolves around a group of committed individuals and partnering organizations, a network.”

The DFFI mission is working to create community-based, sustainable food systems that enhance the local food economy while encouraging healthier lifestyles.

““We don’t really have a central location. However, for the time being, our physical sponsor is Delta Health Alliance in Stoneville. Right now, we’re working to create our non-profit status. All that paperwork has been done and is now in process.”

Following several years of gestation, DFFI began its work in earnest last April. “We didn’t get involved with the schools until July. But we’ve been working with two really receptive school districts – Mound Bayou and Coahoma County.”

Between just those two districts, over 725,000 meals are served to students annually.

In both districts, Betz says food service directors “have been incredibly supportive and excited about providing fresh produce to students. It hasn’t been a challenge to get them to use things like sweet potatoes.”

The growers DFFI have worked with have dealt directly with the Coahoma County and Mound Bayou schools. “That cuts out the middleman and helps provide farmers with a bit more money, which helps them to build and expand their operations.”

Under the Mississippi Department of Education there is already a statewide farm-to-school program. However, “they mainly deal with larger growers – and that’s fantastic. But for smaller growers that don’t produce the volume that the state program needs, it makes more sense for them to provide produce for one school district at a time.”