Four plus hours north of New Orleans, I turned off I-55, the road running through the heart of the Mississippi Delta. I headed down rolling side roads into Holmes County, Mississippi, the poorest county, in the poorest state in the nation. It’s a fact that becomes fairly apparent by the broken down roadside trailer homes and tiny ramshackle towns scattered on the peripheries of large cotton plantations, dormant and flooded in the winter. The landscape and infrastructure didn’t strike me as so remarkably different from what I've seen travelling through rural parts of a number of developing countries in Latin America.
After driving back and forth several times through the town of Tchula (pronounced Chula) in search of a turn-off road that had no sign, I finally found Calvin Head, director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization, in front of the one-street town's city hall. We drove together to a county barn facility in the even poorer town of Milestown a few miles down the road. Around 10 people showed up, including three farmers who are part of the program, an attorney that works with the group, and a handful of youth involved in the program.
The West Holmes Community Development Organization was started about three years ago to provide support for a loose cooperative of local black vegetable farmers, and to help integrate their crops into the cafeterias of local schools as well as onto the shelves of major local retailers like Wal-Mart. Since then, the group has tried to secure a series of large grants, both from federal agriculture and labor programs, as well as private foundations. The money would mainly go towards farm infrastructure and organic transition costs - one farmer told me that he had the land, but didn't have any money for decent equipment, and just couldn't do much with what little he did own. The group also has a job training objective, and last year, local high school students worked with individual farmers, and in return, received a share of the harvest profits. During harvest season, the farmers also run a mobile market program, in which they sell their produce in towns around the county, and accept WIC checks for it.
This is where King Cotton still reigns supreme, where huge land tracts continue to owned largely by whites and worked on by poor blacks, and where the number of vegetable farms, and access to fresh food, is virtually non-existent. Promoting a group of farmers committed to growing and selling veggies, then, is not just a nice idea; it's really an effort to help preserve a community that has long been devastated by deep poverty, where diet-related health illnesses and related deaths have become the norm. Mr. Head, who owns a few acres but spends most of his time running his organization, told me he used to be the county's transportation director and began noticing that the row seats on the school busses for elementary grades, intended to accommodate 3 children, were increasingly only able to fit two. It was a clear sign of an alarming weight gain from one generation to the next. In fact, Holmes County is the second most obese county in Mississippi - the most obese state in the country.
"You can make the argument that if America is the most obese nation in the world," Mr. Head noted, "than our county is the most obese place in the world."
I found something quite striking during the meeting about listening to the farmers discuss their land and the crops they grew - okra, watermelon, greens, corn, beans, just to name a few. These are men who have decided to remain here and keep doing what their families have done for generations. It's an idea that might not seem so outlandish except for the realization that in this very place, just 150 years ago all the black farmers here - the great-grandparents of the men in this room - were slaves to white landowners. And to remain here, with that legacy in their shadow, and to continue to proudly farm their own land to, is to me, a fairly extraordinary notion.