Ebony Yarn is a mother, caregiver to her parents, and volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club in downtown Jackson. With so many under her care, she has to feed several mouths, and she makes $40 too much to qualify for any assistance.
“That puts you in a very murky zone because you have to go out and try to apply for different programs or make your ends meet the best way possible,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.
When Yarn goes grocery shopping, she works within her budget. If a store isn’t having a sale, she sticks to canned goods or what she can get for a few dollars. If she goes to Kroger, which is a bit on the pricier side for her, she makes sure to use coupons. But even with extra help, she is still not making a ton of groceries.
“I’m on more of a Save A Lot budget. I can go to Save A Lot and spend $50 and get two weeks worth of food. It’s not as healthy or fresh, but it’s what’s available on my budget. I learned a long time ago (that with) different-quality grocery stores, it reflects in their meats, vegetables and produce,” Yarn said.
She knows many others who have multiple mouths to feed and, with the pandemic, have now been reduced to having little to no income coming in.
However, hope for wholesome meals made with fresh fruits and vegetables has come in the form of the Dole Sunshine for All program, which is bringing fresh produce, meals and education to communities that need it the most in an effort to address the global food-insecurity crisis. The program officially launched in Jackson in August.
The program has no defined end date because its focus is to teach communities and equip them with the tools necessary to keep the program running outside of Dole’s influence.
Dole Worldwide Packaged Foods President Pier Luigi Sigismondi says this new program addresses the critical challenges of accessibility and affordability along with nutrition education.
“Jackson will serve as a blueprint for how we’re going to tackle these challenges in other food deserts using a hyper-local model. Together with partners, we’re building a foundation that will drive systemic change within individual communities and our society at large,” Sigismondi said in a statement.
In 2018, Feeding America reports 43,580 people were food insecure in Hinds County. More than 14,000 households are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, which provides nutrition benefits to enhance the food budget for families in need, the City of Jackson reports.
Jackson has 20 grocery stores with fewer than 5% of them stocking locally grown produce. In comparison, the capital city has 70 fast-food restaurants, 60 convenience stores and 150 gas stations that offer unhealthy food options, Dole reports.
Dole has partnered with local chefs, Up in Farms, Footprint Farms, Smoothie King and the Boys and Girls Club of Central Mississippi in downtown Jackson. The program includes weekly farmers markets with locally grown produce from Footprint Farms, free smoothies from Smoothie King, and hot meals crafted by local chefs Nick Wallace and Regina Wallace and Dole chef ambassadors Jamie Gwen and Ally Phillips.
The company also donated $75,000 to Up to Farms to support its Farm-To-Table Training Center. It is providing Virtual Dole Cooking Camp lessons for adults and building Captain Planet Foundation Project Learning Gardens at Boys and Girls Clubs and elementary schools. Dole has future plans to work with local entrepreneurs to expand farmers markets and healthy food trucks in food deserts across the city.
Events alternate every Saturday, and updates are available on the Boys and Girls Club of Central Mississippi’s Facebook page. Volunteers will give out Smoothie Kings smoothies and hot dogs, and host a pop-up farmers’ market at the Boys and Girls Club on Capitol Street on Oct. 24 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The next Saturday, October 31, residents can pick up a hot meal from the Boys and Girls Club from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
‘I Just Had Blinders On’
Heavenly Sweetz chef Regina Wallace was in the process of moving to another kitchen for her business when Dole reached out to her. She grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and had shopped at Kroger most of her life. When her mom moved back to her hometown of Jackson, she followed and established her business here.
Wallace said she wasn’t aware of what food insecurity was until this year, and she was deeply moved after watching the local Fertile Ground documentary.
“I just had blinders on, so I know if I have blinders on, there’s a lot of people that are not aware of what’s going in cities such as Jackson where there is food insecurity,” Wallace said. “I got a chance to watch the documentary on Jackson about food insecurity, “Fertile Ground,” and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cried through the whole thing.”
Wallace said she shares anything that she has, so when the opportunity presented itself to partner with Dole and prepare meals for underserved communities, she was honored. Nick Wallace, Jamie Gwen and Ally Phillips have created recipes for Dole that she and Chef Nick cook. (Regina and Nick are not related).
“I’ve learned quite a bit about how to incorporate fruit into your regular meal, not as a side dish, but in the entree. It will pick up some of the sweetness, it will give you some savory. At times, you may not be able to taste it all, but you’re getting a good dose of your fruit or vegetable,” she said.
She recently prepared a Cajun chicken casserole with crushed pineapples incorporated into it. She first cooked chicken thighs with onions and bell peppers. Then to create the casserole, she blended the chicken with rice, cream of chicken soup, additional seasonings and crushed pineapples, and topped the dish off with cheese.
“The crushed pineapples didn’t make it overly sweet like I thought it would. To counteract some of that sweetness, I added in paprika. It did create a creaminess to the rice that made it more of a risotto feel than just a regular chicken-and-rice casserole,” the chef said.
Wallace said she has adjusted some meals to make them feel more regional by adding a Cajun and southern twist, but all the products contain a Dole product either in the entree or on the side.
Ebony Yarn is very appreciative of the meals the program provides for her and her family, calling it an “extra blessing.” She has been able to expand her culinary palette, enjoy healthier options and bond with her daughter through the activity sheets included with the meals.
“(There) was a cheesy chicken and rice, and then they did some coleslaw with pineapples and apples chopped up in it. I’m not the type that likes fruit in my sides, so when I initially looked at that coleslaw I was like naw, I’m not going to eat this, but I tasted it, and it was really good,” Yarn said of one meal.
The free Smoothie King smoothies give her parents, who are diabetic, something sweet, tasty and healthy to consume, she said. And when she takes trips to the grocery store, she’s now incorporating healthier options.
“The grocery-store trips that we have made since we started the program, you do see the shift. Let’s not pick up all these chips, let’s grab some popcorn,” she said. “We have been enjoying the total program, and I feel like Jackson is definitely the area that needs it.”
‘Feeding Minds, Bodies and Souls’
Since Dole’s Sunshine For All program began in August, it has provided more than 1,000 meals a month and more than 600 healthy smoothies, CEO and president of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Mississippi Penney Ainsworth said.
Ainsworth has been working for the Boys and Girls Club organization for 20 years and relocated to Jackson from Virginia, where there are grocery stores and pharmacies on nearly every corner, she said.
“When I came here to Jackson, one of the things was our kids were getting dinner in the evening time at the clubs and, before I came, it wasn’t a hot meal. It’s a grocery store in the corner (near) our facility called Cash & Carry. Nothing in there was fresh. The kids were eating cold celery, no ranch. They were getting bologna, no cheese,” Ainsworth told the Mississippi Free Press.
Before the pandemic, the clubs served 1,000 kids a day in the summertime and 150 kids a day in the after-school program, the president said. The Boys and Girls Club has now become an academy for kids and the Sunshine For All program has been incorporated into their curriculum with a culinary-arts elective, she said.
“Our kids are very excited when they get something new like aprons or utensils. They’ve sent us warmers to keep our food warm. Our kids are getting learning sheets each Saturday. What we’re doing now is taking those sheets and utilizing them through the weekdays,” Ainsworth said.
Ebony Yarn’s daughter has really been enjoying the fruit cups, she said, as well as the many activities the program incorporates with the food.
“The Dole activity sheets, we actually do them together, the crossword puzzles. Sometimes I play with her, I say hey before you do something, I say finish this crossword puzzle. Or I’ll get one from the stack that I get, and we’ll sit down and do them together to see who gets done the quickest and talk about the things that’s on it,” Yarn said.
While some might shrug at the Dole program as mere marketing, Ainsworth said the community is really embracing the program as kids along with their parents continue to come to the Boys and Girls Club every Saturday for hot meals. There are already plans for next year’s program to partner with different social services that parents might not always know about.
“We’re going to try to bring it to the parents, so when they come to the club on Saturdays, we’re feeding their minds, bodies and their souls,” she said.
Ainsworth wants everyone to come together so that the paradigm can be shifted and young people will have access to fresh fruits and vegetables that will foster a healthy upbringing.
“We can make sure that we start it with them as kids and, through this partnership with Dole and spreading all this sunshine, that’s what’s happening. If we can start with a child, we can impact an entire household,” she said.