The Mississippi Delta has some of the most fertile topsoil in the world. In simpler times, the lush, productive farmlands surrounding everyday regional commutes to work and home would translate into a healthy surrounding community — a community that thrives and develops off of its own natural resources. Instead, the reality is much less idyllic, as the MidSouth fights rates of obesity, heart disease and stroke that are among the highest in the nation. It’s a sobering statistic that a local nonprofit hopes to change.“Food insecurity is usually related to poverty,” says Tom Pittman, President of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi and board member of 4Rivers Fresh Food, a project aimed at aggregating, distributing and marketing locally grown food. “Poor people tend to buy less expensive food, and less expensive food tends be to higher in calories and lower in nutritional value, causing obesity.” Despite having the best soil on earth, less than 1 percent of cropland acreage in Mississippi is used to harvest fruits and vegetables, according to a report released by the University of Mississippi’s McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement.
What those restrictions mean for the greater Delta community is that access to fresh, local produce is limited. In fact, studies have shown that Mississippi has markedly lower rates of fruit and vegetable consumption among adults than the rest of the nation. Combine that with poverty and the transportation barriers across networks of small, widely separated towns — especially along the Delta — and it’s easy to see why fast food restaurants, gas stations and barbecue stands become standard fare for many low-income households in the region.“Eating a diet enhanced by fresh local produce that has not been picked while still green, shipped for miles and artificially ripened is a true privilege,” says Pittman. But as privilege implies denied access, the 4Rivers Fresh Foods project seeks to turn the tables and simply focus on a dual goal of bringing local farmers and local families together, regardless of economic limitations.In fact, anyone is welcome to participate in the distribution program. “We have just been approved to accept EBT cards and SNAP benefits,” says Pittman. “So absolutely anyone can get one of our bags of fresh foods on a weekly basis."With a cost of $10 to join and less than $30 per month to participate, and an ever-expanding distribution network to cover the region, 4Rivers Fresh Foods is setting out to do something that could change the trajectory of health and well-being in the Mississippi Delta for a long time to come.
The produce and dairy that go through 4Rivers’ distribution process is some of the most healthful, nutritious food available in the world. It was grown or farmed in rich, fertile Delta soil, and the farmers who are part of the program are thoroughly vetted to make sure the produce they supply is grown locally. Some of those farmers, like Michael Hawks of Homestead Farms and Wild Goose Gardens, have even started fall gardens to extend the availability of 4Rivers Fresh Foods’ produce into the early winter. Produce available from Dickey Farms and Woodson Ridge also adds seasonal variety to the selection. Yet, growing and obtaining the food is only half the battle. “We have been aided immensely in our startup by businesses partnering with us,” says Pittman. Chris Lee at Red Square Meat & Fish Market allows 4Rivers Fresh Foods to use his shop’s location at 427 East Commerce Street in Hernando to pack bags and distribute them; the bags that are packed are provided by Stern Cardiovascular Clinic.
On Dec. 17, Steve Beene at the Fillin Station Grille hosted the first annual Farm-to-Table Dinner to promote eating locally grown foods, and throughout the year, Desoto Athletic Club on Goodman Road is a pickup point for the project’s Southaven and Olive Branch subscribers.With plans to become a separate nonprofit entity within the next year, 4Rivers Fresh Foods is in need of many things: steady customers, a regular supply of fresh food for those customers, farmers contributing locally grown produce and products, volunteers who might do anything from pack bags to post updates on social media, commercial refrigerators and freezers, and a refrigerated truck. 4Rivers can effectively use monetary contributions, volunteers and equipment, as well as customers and producers. “I have contacted other area farmers,” says Pittman. “I plan to extend my relationships with any who farm with good agricultural practices to provide the best local produce to our area. As our membership grows, more farmers will benefit by this additional outlet for their goods.”Whether a grower or potential subscriber, to learn more about 4Rivers Fresh Foods, email Margaret Yates at email@example.com or call at 901.326.1627. To learn more about the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi and its many projects to strengthen the communities of North Mississippi and the Delta, go to cfnm.org or call 662.449.5002.
Causes | January 2014
A Fresh Alternative to Obesity
One initiative’s effort to build a
healthier community through
locally grown produce
Story by Tonya L. Thompson