By TED CARTER
Sometimes two problems can come together to create a solution.
In Mississippi, small farmers struggle to keep their land and make enough money to get by. And across the state, many rural communities and even some urban neighborhoods lack a means of buying fresh food.
The farmers have the food and the people who live in the state’s “food deserts” want the food.
Hence, the Alliance for Sustainable Agricultural Production was born in 2012 in Holmes County and has since expanded to all corners of the state, says Keith Benson, a Holmes farmer and Alliance founder.
“Think about it. These small and mid-size farms are already in rural, under-served communities. We solve both problems by making money for farmers and getting healthy food to the people who need it.”
The Alliance for Sustainable Agricultural Production, which is transitioning to the new name Alliance for Sustainable Farms, hosts “field days” around the state at which local small and mid-size farmers receive training and support from Alliance leaders and ag extension professionals from Mississippi State and Alcorn universities.
“Our first one was in April 2012,” says Benson, whose organization recently held its 57th field day, this one in Greenwood.
“We are going to keep working this thing,” Benson says. “The last field day we had more than 500 participants.”
The Alliance took to the road in 2015 to bring the field days to farm communities across the state, Benson says.
Each field day is held at a local farm.
“We’re doing four field days in May,” he adds. “We’re a very, very small organization but with the support of Mississippi State, Alcorn and others, we try to bring the experts in to help these farmers with knowledge and skill development.”
The field days cover more than 50 topics a year. Typically, eight or nine are covered at each event
Farmers receive training in production, marketing and selling. “We give them ideas on where to sell and the best markets to sell to,” Benson says.
“Every month is a different topic based on what the farmers are doing at their operations,” he notes.
Farmers are encouraged to bring their produce to nearby small towns. “The best way to sell and market their produce to consumers or to those who sell directly to consumers.”
Mississippi’s small farmers, Benson says, “can’t compete in the wholesale market with these big farmers. But they can have success in building these relationships with community-supported agriculture.”
They can set up small stands or deliver a certain amount of produce to a community location every week, says Benson, who adds the Alliance is delivering fresh produce to a growing number of schools in the Delta.
At the start, most of the Alliance’s funding came from the small farmers. Later, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce provided a specialty crop grant to cover 40 percent of the costs. That grant expired two years ago, leaving the organization with no funding other than what members provided.
However, says Benson, “funders are starting to realize the importance of the work we are doing. I figure that within the next month or so, it is going to look a lot different than what we have been doing.”
While so far the training has focused on farmers, in the months ahead, the Alliance will begin training educators, food co-op specialists and other professionals who support farmers. “Nobody else is doing the kind of training we are doing,” Benson says.
Assessing work he and other Alliance members have done in the last few years, Benson says: “It looks like it’s making a difference. Folks are getting more access to sustainably grown food.”
Without such efforts, Mississippi can expect to turn back rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases related to diet, says Dr. David Buys, an MSU extension agent who specializes in food science, nutrition and health promotion.
“People can only choose from the choices available to them,” Buys says.
Farmers looking for new markets received a big boost from the Mississippi’s Department of Agriculture and Commerce at the start of the decade, when it arranged for the tens of thousands of Mississippians enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card for purchases at farmers markets and roadside fruit and vegetable stands.
With that, 20 percent of the state’s population – which is the percentage of Mississippians on food stamps – had greatly increased access to fresh food.
The importance of that is seen in statistics from the University of Mississippi Center for Bioethics and Humanities that show over 70 percent of food-stamp eligible low-income Mississippians must travel 30 miles to reach a supermarket, where the absence of other food sellers typically drives up the prices of food significantly. Equally as startling is a finding by the Center for Bioethics and Humanities that the Delta has one grocery market for every 190 square miles.
Farmers taking part in the ag department program can process payments made with EBT cards with a free wireless “point of sale” device. That put an end to the paper coupons that merchants would have to redeem to gain payments.
Meanwhile, a lack of action by state legislators to address food deserts has led other organizations to step in.
House members in 2015 rejected a bill that would have given grocers tax credits and other incentives for opening stores in a vast swath of Mississippi underserved by food retailers. The bill sponsored by Jackson Democrat state Sen. David Blount won nearly unanimous support in the Senate but failed to get a vote in the House Ways & Means Committee.
To allay fears of hurting business for mom-and-pop grocery markers, Blount wrote the legislation to specify that eligibility for incentives would be limited to supermarkets that come into an area deemed under-served through census data collected by the North American Industry Classification System.
Jackson-based non-profit community development finance entity Hope Enterprise Corp. hoped to see passage of the measure. Hope said at the time it saw great promise in using tax credits to build grocery stores in communities starved for fresh food.
Hope Enterprise has been working to recreate in Mississippi the success it had in helping to eliminate food deserts in New Orleans after Katrina. Through a U.S Treasury Department “Healthy Food Initiative,” Hope is looking to use tax credits and other means to arrange financing for grocery stores in food deserts, including most recently the newly opened Cash & Carry Fresh Food Market on Terry Road in South Jackson.
It’s helped to open 11 stores so far, most of which are in New Orleans, lending $10.5 million through subsidiary Hope Federal Credit Union and leveraging $58 million in tax credits and other federal funds, says Ed Sivak, Hope Enterprise’s executive vice president for policy and communications.
“In addition to increasing access to healthy food, they have been an important provider of jobs,” says Sivak, putting the new jobs number at around 350, including 25 to 30 jobs at the new Cash & Carry Fresh Food Market in Jackson.