LEXINGTON, Miss. (AP) — Along U.S. 49 in Holmes County, “Farmers Market” appears in big red letters peeling off a white gas station structure.
It advertises “candy, chips, cookies, ice cream” — none of which can be found there now. A little rundown mart sits empty behind it with thick chains holding its doors closed.
The defunct market serves to illustrate the food scarcity in one of the most poverty-stricken, yet agriculturally rich, counties in the poorest state in the nation. The building, owned by the Mileston farming cooperative, is also a reminder of promise in a community striving for food sovereignty despite few resources.
In Holmes County, almost half of residents live in poverty and a third are “food insecure” — they lack access to the amount and type of food to keep them healthy and active, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As a result, almost half of residents are also obese. A lack of healthy food options in the area is partly to blame.
Calvin Head, the co-op leader, said they stopped operating the farmers market store to focus resources on the packing center, a white shed next door that houses farming equipment and was recently certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Two other deteriorating structures with the same white paint and red trim line the highway next to the shed and defunct market. They serve as an after-school classroom and day care.
The 13 active farmers in the cooperative — which began in 1942 with help from the Farm Security Administration after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — live within five miles of the little cluster of buildings, the co-op’s center.
Seventy-five years ago, the government purchased nearly 10,000 acres of ground south of Tchula. Over 100 black families moved to the new community and began farms and other cooperative enterprises, including a school.
The co-op played a significant role in the civil rights movement by housing workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The farm families became some of the first black Mississippians to register to vote.
Decades later, the cooperative is working to advance its community in another way: through food and health.
The co-op’s youth-in-agriculture project, which began in 2015, partners farmers and young people. While giving them an opportunity to earn money, the farmers teach students and older apprentices how to grow and harvest vegetables.
On a sunny afternoon after school let out, a dozen Holmes County Central High School students gathered on a pre-plowed field behind the run-down mart.
Head had picked them up from school in Lexington and taken them straight to the co-op, so they still wore their school uniforms, khaki pants and red polos.
Bill Evans, director of horticulture with Up in Farms Food Hub, which partners with Mileston, received blank stares after telling the group of 16- and 17-year-olds that the tray of tiny sprouts he carried would grow into cauliflower.
“You know what broccoli looks like?” Evans asked. “Imagine a white one of those.”
Many of them had never eaten the vegetable that they’d spend the rest of the day planting. Head searched for pictures of cauliflower on his cellphone and passed it between the teens. They’d taken off their shoes, wearing only socks as they balanced their feet between the dirt rows.
The way 77-year-old farmer Griffin McLaurin puts it, folks in the generations following his “weren’t taught to survive.”
McLaurin owns 17 acres in the Mileston community, part of which he makes available to the co-op student partnership.
Many of McLaurin’s peers — who had farmer parents like his — moved away after school instead of maintaining the family farm.
When the older farmers couldn’t maintain the land anymore, the children weren’t there to take over, so they sold or leased the land to white farmers who prioritized cotton and soybeans. Head said the families make about enough money renting out their land to pay the taxes on it.
The generation that stopped farming in adulthood never passed down the skills and knowledge that come with growing and harvesting fresh foods, McLaurin said.
“The younger generation never did learn how to grow it. What I say is, if you don’t know how to grow it, you’ll never know how to eat it,” McLaurin said.
The commercial farmers came in and used chemicals and pesticides on the land year after year, McLaurin explained, destroying the integrity of the soil.
“The trees don’t produce fruit,” he said.
It changed how locals perceived agriculture and food in general.
“We used to walk outside and get a pear — and that was my snack,” Head said. “Now they got to go to the store and buy flaming hot Cheetos. They decorate these stores to target our children, and we’re hungry so we eat it.”
It’s really a case study in industrial agriculture, a phenomenon not unique to Holmes County or Mississippi. Fewer Americans are involved in the actual production of food than ever before, but the country’s mass-produced food problem is much deeper than abandoned family farms.
“You used to walk by the orchards and smell the peaches,” former Tchula mayor Eddie Carthan said. “Now, you can go into a grocery store, and it looks like an apple, it looks like a pear, but it doesn’t taste like it. It’s like that all over the country; it’s just worse in poor areas. We just happen to be in one of the poorest areas in the state, if not the country.”
Over the last several decades, national farm policy has increasingly prioritized driving down the cost of commodity crops — like soybeans, the crop dominating fields all over Holmes County — while providing relatively little support for fruits and vegetables.
The food industry has responded, finding more ways to use additives from these cheap crops in processed foods.
Most everywhere in the country, this has resulted in heavily processed diets and a sharp increase in obesity.
Forty-six percent of folks in Holmes County are obese, giving it the second-highest obesity rate in the state. It’s also got the fifth-highest rate of diabetes at 17.5 percent.
Though the county’s obesity rate has pretty steadily increased in the past several years, as well as the state’s, Holmes County Circuit Clerk Earline Wright-Hart says the statistic doesn’t match the reality of progress in her community.
“If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I would have agreed,” Wright-Hart said of the county’s poor health. “Now, I don’t.”
The 17-year-old hospital in Lexington has a walking track that Wright-Hart said has become a popular place for locals, particularly the elderly community, to work out. Overall, she sees folks making lifestyle changes, just like she did, introducing more organic foods into their diets and exercising.
“I’m meeting more people doing the same thing I’m doing because of diabetes and heart disease,” Wright-Hart said.
The Wesley Youth Foundation in Tchula has provided cooking classes and nutritional education for young people, parents and senior citizens. Through the Holmes Health Nutrition Program, participants are taught which foods to shop for, how to pick the best produce and read labels.
The program was funded by a Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities grant, which has been eliminated after this year. The foundation is seeking other grants to continue the services.
“We just have to keep talking and keep preaching about the health issues they’re going to be faced with if they keep eating the way that they are,” said founder Blanche Wesley.
Beyond teaching students about growing, the Mileston co-op makes some of its food available to the community at a minimal cost or for free. Two days a week during harvesting season, folks can pick up foods from the packaging shed that the farmers can’t sell to their vendors, Up in Farms Food Hub and The Merchants Company.
The co-op doesn’t have the capability to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), though three-fourths of Holmes County residents qualify for food stamps and many rely on them solely. But between September and June of last year, the co-op gave away over 4,000 pounds of produce.
Head said he hopes to reopen the farmers market, which was once open three days a week during harvesting season before someone vandalized it, causing expensive damages. The store had been set up to take EBT.
“People come around and sell the things they grow in their garden and stuff off the back of their truck, but we can’t afford to buy them because they don’t take food stamps,” said Dolecia Cody, a 29-year-old mother in Tchula.
Cody travels 25 miles to Greenwood to go grocery shopping, when she can get a family member with a car to take her, despite the co-op being a mile from her house.
It’s not proved feasible for the farmers to sell directly to grocery stores in the area, like the small Tchula supermarket, so the produce that can be purchased locally with EBT is from elsewhere.
“It’s easier from the bottomline standpoint to buy food from a large vendor because they know that essentially anything they want, they can get from Cisco,” said Wes Miller, a consultant and former Holmes County economic development specialist.
And in the case of Tchula’s store, the fruits and vegetables are often poor quality or even spoiled.
“Most of the stuff we’re buying, it’s losing quality en route to us,” Head said.
Mileston has a long way to go, but the pieces are there.
“I am struck by the determination and motivation farmers have to change the way food is produced in their communities — from food hub projects, to food sovereignty initiatives, to farmer apprenticeship programs — all in low-resourced, high-poverty communities,” said Leslie Hossfeld, director of Mississippi State University’s Food Insecurity Project. “When asked why they farm, responses have consistently focused on the desire to ensure their communities have access to healthy, affordable food.”
–By ANNA WOLFE , The Clarion-Ledger
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