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.”

Setting things up

The DFFI network consists of, among other professions, Extension employees, food service directors, restaurateurs and farmers. “That allows everyone that was working in their own circles to hook up. Now, we know of farmers and cooperatives to work with. They’re working to expand – most are small to medium-sized operations. The school sales provide them with a large, consistent market.

“Right now, the Delta isn’t overflowing with fruit and vegetable growers that can provide a supply for all the demand. But we have a great place to start.”

Has Betz identified student produce preferences?

“These are the things that we’re just beginning to discover. Part of my responsibilities is to collect that information and share it publically.

“One of the interesting things is the federal government has begun new school lunch standards. Those require an increase in the serving amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

“A lot of the food service directors I speak with say ‘This week I need a red or green or orange.’ They’re referencing the color of the different types of produce they need.”

Obviously, the students and staff are more familiar with Southern staple ingredients like sweet potatoes, greens, peas, okra, and watermelon. But because of the new federal standards, there’s an interest in bringing in less common choices such as kale, Swiss chard, butternut squash.

“Back in August, we even sold some Crenshaw melons. In Indianola, where the school district will be coming on board soon, they bought eggplant for the first time. It’s an exciting time as this shift takes place and provides new opportunities.”

Education

While local growers provide the best quality ingredients in-season, there are still plenty of food and produce vendors the schools can tap into in the off-season. That leads to schools creating menus around the seasonality of foods.

And that, in turn, will lead to larger concepts and the education of students by making them more aware of what they’re eating in the cafeteria, says Betz. “They’ll see the growing patterns and how that relates to the foods they’re served.”

DFFI has an ambitious agenda. In the next few years, “we’d like to work towards providing school kitchen staff with additional training and ideas. Some states – Vermont is one – are already doing such things. They’ve already integrated professional development courses in the schools. We’d like to try that here.”

What are the next school districts to join in?

“Right now, for efficiency, we’re targeting Highway 61 and 82. So, we’ll be looking to work all the way from Desoto County all the way down to Indianola. Eventually, we’ll hit Vicksburg. Along Highway 82, it’ll be Greenville to Greenwood.”

Betz has already spoken with officials in the Indianola and Leland school districts. “They’re on board. There’s a tomato farmer in the area that grows in the hoop or greenhouses. He’s connected with those two districts and they’re open to getting other products from other farmers.”

School gardens and greenhouses on campus are another aspect of the effort.

“It’s very important that students have the opportunity for hands-on education. A group around Batesville, the Tri-County Agricultural Coop, has allotted small garden grants for schools. They’d like to do that in some of the schools they’d like to sell to and mentor. Already there are hoop or greenhouses at some of the schools and those grants will allow the schools to develop their gardens even more.”