The Delta Health Alliance

EATS Final Strategy Meeting

Posted on: August 19, 2019

Ensuring a healthy community food system in the Mississippi Delta requires a vision from those who want it to succeed.

Savannah Arneson, a dietetic intern with Delta State University, sees a united community “that is progressively working towards the education and increased consumption of fresh, local foods in all schools.”

Caroline Francisco, an AmeriCorps-FoodCorps member serving Sanders Elementary School in Hollandale, sees expanded school gardens “plus the use of resources already in the community to create pride plus ownership in local food.”

Allison Poindexter, school program director for the Delta Health Alliance (DHA), sees “the use of resources and people involved in the Delta EATS program to connect the community to receive fresh fruits and vegetables.”

And it was that program, Delta EATS, or Edible Agriculture Teaching Students – a network of school gardens supported by DHA — that brought a group of visionaries together in July for the last of four critical meetings that began last November, aimed at developing a community food strategy through the lens of a successful farm-to-school program.

The meetings brought together representatives of three school districts involved in the program, parent liaisons, food service directors, FoodCorps members, farmers, food technology experts, non-profit and government officials, Mississippi State University extension service professionals, community food organization members and community leaders.

“Through these strategy and vision sessions, participants learned a lot more about the farm-to-school program,” said Ryan Betz, a certified gardener and Delta EATS co-founder and project manager for DHA).  “This was a huge learning and relationship building opportunity for everyone.”

Funded through a Community Food Projects grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the farm-to-school community food strategy has four primary goals:

  • To meet the food needs an increase self-reliance of low-income families.
  • To improve coordination and distribution between agricultural and commercial food sectors.
  • To create innovative marketing activities that benefit farmers, producers and low-income residents.
  • To plan for long-term solutions and foster an interest in sustainable community-based agriculture among future generations.

As stated by the USDA, the grant is being used to develop “a program to fight food insecurity through developing community food projects that help promote the self-sufficiency of low-income people by increasing their access to fresher, more nutritious food supplies.”

The EATS program has already developed a strong foot-hold in the three communities it currently serves through a network of school gardens and connections with local farmers and agriculture programs. 

The three school gardens are located at Hollandale’s Sanders Elementary School; Shaw’s McEvans School; and Leland’s Leland Elementary School. Overseen by Betz, the program is also supported by AmeriCorps-FoodCorps members, the U.S. Department of Education, the Whole Foods/Whole Kids Foundation, the Mississippi Farm to School Network and Lowes. The program has received numerous in-kind contributions, and individual and local business donations.

As the program continues, Betz and his team will work to prioritize the strategies gleaned from the sessions and begin implementing those plans with the help of communities that the program serves.

“It’s a mosaic of sorts, many different pieces that must come together to build a more efficient, productive, and valued network of farmers, school officials, food service members and policymakers to ensure we have available and accessible healthy food options for our citizens,” Betz said.