Student Voices: From Farm to School in Mississippi

A patch of collard greens grows right on the side of the highway, illustrating that they can grow almost anywhere. Most of the greens served in Mississippi school meals are canned and from outside the state!

Today’s dispatch comes from Ona Balkus, a second-year joint degree student at Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health. Ona spent her winter term working with the Mississippi Food Policy Council as part of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. She is also a member of the student practice organization the Mississippi Delta Project and is a student fellow for the Law and Social Change Program of Study. She will be participating in the Food Law and Policy Clinic again for the spring term.

It’s 5:30pm on a Friday and I’m sitting at a small dining room table with six eighth grade girls, a nun, and my friend whom I’m traveling with. The drive into the town where these girls have grown up and live was a bit of a shock, with mostly boarded up stores on the main street, stray dogs on the side of the road, and miles of corn and cotton fields around the small Delta town.

Around the table, we are engaged in serious conversation. “I only like string beans!” “The lunch lady spit in my potatoes today, I swear!” We’re talking about improving school foods, a topic that preoccupies our country and affects these girls every day. The girls like some vegetables, but love fried chicken and cupcakes, and are excited to start a community garden with Sister Kay (the nun who leads this mentorship group) next spring. After talking for an hour about food, cooking, and what they want to be when they grow up (doctors, lawyers, and a cosmetologist), we say our goodbyes and thank them for hosting us at their weekly meeting.

While my winter term assignment is focused on interviewing and learning from school food service staff, farmers, and other food advocates in Mississippi, meeting these girls is just as important for the success of this project. Through the Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Mississippi Delta Project, I’m working to help build a Farm to School movement in Mississippi.

Farm to School is any program where schools use locally grown produce in school meals. With over 40% of Mississippi’s children either overweight or obese, there is a high need for programs that promote healthy eating. Farm to School increases fruit and vegetable consumption as well as nutrition and health literacy among students. In addition and just as importantly, in a state ranked 50th for household income, Farm to School generates new revenue and jobs for small farmers in Mississippi.

One food service director I interview articulates a common theme: “We’ve gotten so far away from preparing fresh vegetables for school meals; everything is delivered already prepared. But I would definitely prefer to serve fresh fruits and vegetables.” While there is excitement about Farm to School, most school food service staff are overwhelmed by the logistics involved in finding farmers, writing contracts, preparing farm fresh foods, and other hurtles.

The Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Delta Project are working to address these hurdles in two distinct ways. First, student have developed legislative recommendations that formed the basis for two Farm to School bills that will be introduced in the Mississippi State Legislature this year. If enacted, these bills will show that the state is supportive and willing to invest in Farm to School programs in Mississippi. Second, this spring students are developing a step-by-step legal guide for school food service staff to start Farm to School programs in their communities.

As we continue our work in Mississippi, I will think about those girls often and how access to healthy foods and increased economic opportunities for their families and community could help them have a fair chance at reaching their full potential. Farm to School is a promising opportunity for Mississippians to invest in their communities, improve their health, and strengthen their relationships. It will be exciting to watch as Farm to School slowly but surely catches on in Mississippi.

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Many small vegetables farmers sell their crops out of roadside stands or the back of their trucks. Selling to a school would be a significant increase in revenue and provide a stable market, and thus enable them to scale up production.