By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Farmers, scholars, activists and government officials on Friday described local food systems as economic development, a countermeasure against obesity and even a community bond.
The gathering was the Mississippi Food Summit, part of Gaining Ground Mississippi’s annual sustainability conference, which continues today with hands-on workshops.
Tupelo vegetable farmer Will Reed said the town could support many organic farms like his, noting he grows only a minuscule fraction of the town’s food.
“The more people doing this the better,” he said.
University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, a researcher in hypertension and heart disease, said the health care profession needs to pay more attention to nutrition.
“American physicians know almost nothing about food, and what they do know is usually wrong,” he said.
Donna Speed of Mississippi State Department of Health said part of reversing the state’s obesity problem is improving the eating habits of preschoolers, including the use of playground gardens.
“If the kids grow it, they’re going to eat it,” she said.
Keith Benson leads Holmes County farmers in sustainable farming and cooperative marketing to improve their incomes. He said hands-on food projects are indispensable for low-income areas.
“The poor people in Holmes County can’t afford the food that we grow. I can’t afford to buy my own food,” he said. “If you want to make a difference, help people start more community gardens.”
Mark Winne, who created community gardens and other food projects in Hartford, Conn., said hands-on projects are only a part of securing quality food for everyone.
“Without policy interventions we could never have … served the most vulnerable members of our society,” he said. “Social change is accomplished on the ground, project by project, but public policy accelerates it.”
Mary Berry, director of the Berry Center and daughter of author Wendell Berry, said her family’s organization is seeking ways to replicate for mid-sized food farmers the economic stability that Kentucky’s Burley Tobacco Program gave tobacco farmers in the 20th century.
“The best, safest and most dependable source of food for a city is … its surrounding countrysides,” she said. “How do we regain an economy that does not disregard community? … We will not have good food policy without good land-use policy.”