Miss. lacks healthy food distribution model

>> A look at healthy food distribution in and out of Mississippi

Mississippi’s achievement of “fattest state in the nation” for seven years running is an economic problem. In addition to significant health care costs to treat chronic illnesses like Type II diabetes and heart disease, the productivity lost due to poor health defies calculation.

A large part of the solution to Mississippi’s overweight woes lies in healthy eating, which involves eating more vegetables. By eating locally grown, seasonal produce and supporting regional farmers, consumers stimulate their local economy and consume nutrient-rich food. Out-of-state produce from commercial farms — picked while green so it can ripen on a 2,000-mile journey to Mississippi — is usually inferior in nutritional quality when compared to seasonal food from local growers.

Nationwide, the movement to support local farmers, called “farm to table,” is catching on.

The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, partnered with the state Department of Agriculture, has just launched a new farm-to-table initiative called Eat Healthy Mississippi. This program will encourage farmers and restaurants to post their food availabilities and needs on designated websites to open up communication and facilitate business opportunities. However, the initiative doesn’t include plans to develop a distribution model to transport food from farmers to restaurants.

Restaurant professionals like Zach Waters, sous chef for Flowood’s Table 100, could be greatly helped by a distribution system. Waters calls finding local produce for the restaurant a “pain.” Table 100 has found and contacted some local farmers on its own, while others have approached the restaurant.

“We’ve compiled a list of local farmers and what they have. It’s really about developing relationships with local farmers and learning what they’re planting and what they’ll have available,” Waters said.

Additionally, Waters grows some food for Table 100 – like butternut squash, turnips, broccoli, brussels sprouts, crowder peas, peppers, cabbage and cauliflower – on his land in Mize.

Restaurants dedicated to serving fresh, local produce in the state of Rhode Island have access to the successful Market Mobile program run by a non-profit called Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

Market Mobile is a cooperative delivery system that uses online software to pool sales orders, delivery and invoicing so farmers can focus on growing. Interested restaurants, schools and grocers in Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts can go to Market Mobile (www.farmfresh.org/hub) and place orders with 40 different farms.

From its 2009 debut with $225,000 in sales, Market Mobile grew to $685,000 in sales in 2010, and will reach $1 million by the end of this year. Market Mobile works with 100 restaurants and moves $25,000 in food per week.

Hannah Mellion, an administrator for the program, said, “People tell us that having a delivery program like this where they can make purchases using technology makes it so much easier for them to work with local farms. Farmers and chefs work really hard, and they work different hours. It can be difficult for them to communicate.”

With our system, in “one order you can get food from up to 40 different places. We also pay the farmers, so farmers like it that we have a consistent payment schedule,” she said.

Right now, 15 percent of Market Mobile’s sales go to covering overhead, like truck rentals, drivers, warehouse rent, gas and supplies. Staff costs are currently borne by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, which is supported by grants and donations. Mellion said they hope the program will be self-sustaining within two years when sales reach $2.5 million.

Program goals for the future include increasing “light processing” services, such as peeling butternut squash or carrots, that save chefs valuable time. Market Mobile also hopes to increase its services to large institutions, such as hospitals or schools with cafeterias.

The group has been asked many times to license its software but hasn’t yet, Mellion said.

Educating kids through veggie boxes

Individual families in a community with a willing farm can benefit from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, like the one run by brothers Mike and Heath Steede on their family farm near Lucedale.

CSA customers can buy memberships and receive a box of produce each week during harvest season. Steedes Farms land that has been in the same family for 100 years and will offer their third CSA program in 2012.

Mike Steede said the goal is to connect customers to the farm. He is a former high school agriculture teacher who also worked for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, and he enjoys the educational aspect of the CSA.

“We teach people where their food comes from. Just because you can buy a tomato in a store 12 months out of the year doesn’t mean it grows in our area 12 months out of the year. … A lot of our members say their kids had never eaten vegetables until they had gotten ours,” he said.

Customers also receive an education about the challenges of farming, like weather and plant disease, which can wipe out or damage crops and possibly reduce the amount of produce customers will receive.

When in season, Steede Farm’s produce — like corn, peas and beans, okra, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard and turnip greens, onions and strawberries — is harvested in the morning and delivered in the evening to drop points in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs as well as Mobile, Ala.

In Dallas, Texas, a business called Urban Acres has taken the CSA model and combined it with a co-op model for the best of both worlds, said owner Steven Bailey.

With its “co-op style produce” program, farm risk is mitigated. If there is a drought that prevents Urban Acres from getting enough Texas farm produce to fill orders, it will bring in organic produce from out of state.

While the profit margins are small, Bailey said Urban Acres is self-sustaining with 600 members.

“It takes a lot of support from the community (to make Urban Acres work). It takes people who are really excited about getting involved. The hard thing about the system we’ve created is there is no choice involved. As a member I don’t get to say, ‘I hate bananas, but I love apples,’” Bailey said.

Urban Acres provides recipes and storage tips in case customers are unsure about how to cook with a new vegetable in their share.

Like Steede, Bailey said he is passionate about educating kids and showing them, for instance, that “This is what a French fry comes from — an actual potato.”

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