Mississippi is rich ground. The nutrients in the alluvial soil here have nourished people in these parts for centuries.
It’s common sense then that folks would want to pass that richness down to every young person in the state—to be enjoyed for generations to come.
My elders did. I grew up in the red hills of Leake County, just a few miles from the Choctaw Reservation on a timber and cattle farm. We always had a garden. I remember tilling the soil to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and learning the importance of farming to human development, growth and health.
In the past few years, our communities have created innovative ways to share this experience with others.
Educators, farmers and child advocates have banded together to bring the farm-to-school movement to the youngest Mississippians. “Farm-to-early care and education,” or farm to ECE, channels fresh, local produce to children in child-care centers, family child-care homes, preschools and other settings.
Now leaders in the state have opportunities to do more.
The idea is a win-win-win. Kids benefit from having healthy food in places where they spend much of their time—in school and in after-care settings. In the U.S., almost 13 million children under age 6 spend 30 hours each week in non-parental care.
It’s also about fostering lifelong good health. Ninety-five percent of brain growth happens before kindergarten. Nutritious food helps prepare little ones to be good thinkers when they get to school. Children who eat homegrown fruits and vegetables are more than twice as likely to get the USDA-recommended five servings daily later in life.
Additionally, farm-to-ECE offers experiential learning. Kids get their hands dirty in school gardens. They learn about nutrition by preparing snacks and meals with Mississippi tomatoes, blueberries, okra, sweet potatoes and more.
The movement also supports producers throughout the state, which supports our state’s economy. This is especially valuable for developing small and family farm businesses run by Black and Brown farmers, Indigenous growers and women in agriculture. Farm-to-school partners are working with state agencies to make procuring local produce easier than ever for child-care centers, preschools and other early childhood education programs.
Supporters believe so heartily in this work that early on they traversed the state north, south, east and west, bringing soil and seeds to child-care centers and other places to get their gardens up and running.
Farm To ECE: ‘Pro-Mississippi At Its Core’
Today, there are 25 child-care settings across the state, from Biloxi to Holly Springs, making sure Mississippi kids have Mississippi food. The demand to start programs is nearly four times what is available, however.
“It’s pro-Mississippi at its core,” said LeBroderick Woods, farm-to-early child care specialist at the Mississippi Farm to School Network. “We’re raising a generation of healthy eaters, putting money in farmers’ pockets, and boosting economic growth in local neighborhoods.”
Lawmakers and private funders can help fulfill this promise by supporting efforts to scale up the movement, reaching more kids than ever.
Mississippi received nearly $3 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act. State dollars can further leverage some of those resources that can be used to grow farm to ECE.
The state Legislature should make this happen before this year’s session ends in April.
But private funders must also support the work. Foundations got many farm-to-school pilots underway. In Mississippi, philanthropy could not only expand the reach of farm-to-ECE, but provide stability to make these early efforts sustainable for years to come.
“We all know our children will eat what they cook and grow,” said Dorothy Grady-Scarbrough, co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network and a longtime farmer in the Delta. “If we introduce them to local foods at an early age, we’ll get the healthy Mississippi we all want. But we need resources to make that happen.”
Plenty of people have noted the dichotomy that one of the most rich and fertile states in the nation also has too many children without the nutrition they need. This doesn’t have to be. As recently as 2019, nearly 16% of state residents experienced food insecurity. That’s the highest rate in the nation.
The great thing is that we have plenty of ways to change that. Farm-to-ECE is a proven solution to getting kids off to a great, healthy start in life, while supporting the farmers Mississippi is so proud of. Let’s keep it growing.
Editor’s Note: Rhea Williams-Bishop is director of Mississippi and New Orleans programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has provided funding to the Mississippi Free Press.
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