The new Eat Healthy Mississippi initiative, which will connect local growers to restaurants and promote healthy eating, is underway.
The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA) recently learned it had received a grant of more than $83,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With the help of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture, MHRA has already contacted more than 1,000 local growers and farmers market managers and encouraged them to list their produce availability on the Mississippi MarketMaker website, a one-stop shop for restaurants, distributors and farmers.
Beginning in January, the initiative will begin educating restaurants about the program through direct mail campaigns and statewide meetings, with the goal of reaching about 2,500 restaurateurs.
Restaurants will later have the opportunity to submit recipes featuring local produce to HealthyDining Finder.com, a website founded in party by MHRA’s parent organization, the National Restaurant Association. HealthyDining Finder.com allows users to search for dietician-approved restaurant meals in cities across the nation.
A third phase of Eat Healthy Mississippi will focus on driving consumers to the HealthyDiningFinder.com site and promoting general education about the initiative.
For the seventh year in a row Mississippi has won the title “fattest state in the nation” per an annual report issued by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Both the Department of Agriculture and MHRA value the project as a way to benefit the health of Mississippians and enrich local economies.
“We’re providing the ag background. MHRA is providing the restaurant background. We’re both in agreement that Mississippi fruits and vegetables play an important part, not only in agriculture and the restaurant business, but in the lives of Mississippians. (Eating local produce) a healthy avenue for people to improve their diets and lifestyles. And it’s grown right here,” said Department of Agriculture spokesman Andy Prosser.
MHRA director Mike Cashion said: “Eat Healthy Mississippi is the type of comprehensive initiative that truly benefits the entire state. The farm-to-restaurant concept opens markets for farmers and creates healthy dining options for the consumers. Everyone wins. Farmers will be able to expand their markets directly to restaurants and the consumers will benefit from having many new healthy dining options available to them. This initiative is an example the restaurant industry has to creating better and healthier lifestyles for all of the consuming public.”
The only farm-to-restaurant aspect Eat Health Mississippi won’t cover is a distribution model, which will be the responsibility of growers and restaurateurs, Cashion said. The purpose of the MarketMaker website is to help consumers find nearby growers so the problem of getting produce to restaurant is mitigated.
Mississippi MarketMaker a repository of growers’ contact information and is managed by the Mississippi State Extension Service. The online service was originally created to give Illinois farmers greater access to regional markets by linking them with processors, retailers, consumers and other food supply chain participants. Now serving 16 states, the site is one of the most extensive collections of searchable food industry related data in the country.
Mississippi specialty crops included in Eat Healthy Mississippi are any local fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, such as watermelon, tomatoes, lettuce, pecans, sweet potatoes, squash, greens and pecans.
Demand for local produce is up.
Despite the fact that Mississippi is an agricultural state, the vast majority of acreage is farmed for cotton as well as genetically modified versions of soybeans and corn that cannot be consumed by humans.
Although there’s no way to assess the acreage or number of growers now producing local fruits and vegetables, Prosser said the demand for locally grown food is growing.
“This is a growing industry across the county and in Mississippi. We’ve seen an increased interest in farming local fruits and vegetables in the last five years. Farmers markets are popping up everywhere and existing farmers markets are growing because of the public demand for local produce,” he said.
The state currently has 56 farmers markets, which are listed on the state Department of Agriculture’s website .
The six-year-old Mississippi Farmers Market near the fairgrounds in Jackson, which began with about 10 vendors, now averages about 50 vendors per week, Prosser said. “There is an unbelievable demand for local produce. We’ve seen farmers this year come into the market who weren’t in business three or four years ago, whereas in the past we had to actively recruit people.”