One in six children in the United States may not have regular access to healthy food, according to the nonprofit, Feeding America. This can lead to health and education problems. In the Mississippi Delta, Alexandra Watts reports on how a school garden is trying to offset food insecurity.
The back doors to Leland Elementary School open and a group of fourth and fifth graders file into their school’s garden.
Colorful signs and flowers line the path. On this humid Delta day, young gardeners make pasta salad with the fresh vegetables they grew themselves.
Ryan Betz, co-founder and program manager of Delta EATS, a school gardening program, is going over cooking techniques.
“The schools really provide a really great institution in the community in which we can have the gardens take root,” he explains. “People really underestimate how much food is part of our education.”
He said Delta EATS provides instruction throughout the school year.
“During that time, we're doing garden lessons that touch on math, science, English, language arts, social studies. The education, it’s really important to bring that here to the Delta because historically it’s been underserved.”
A United Health Foundation report ranks Mississippi as the most food insecure state. Food insecurity is when a person lacks access to nutritious food. But when a garden is right outside a school classroom, fresh produce is grown by students for students.
Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, said the lack of nutritious food impacts how a child learns.
“If anyone’s ever been hungry…let’s say you missed your lunchtime, it’s very disruptive to your thought process because what are you thinking about? You’re thinking about your stomach growling,” Shelson explains.
“So if you are a child, and you come to school hungry, you probably aren’t going to be in the best place to learn.”
As you drive through the Mississippi Delta, you see rows and rows of crops. One might assume there’s more than enough food to go around. But these crops aren't always food crops, and a lot of individuals do not have access to land or time to garden.
“There’s definitely not as much gardening that’s being past down by families as much,” Betz said. “A lot of families don’t cook fresh stuff, maybe it’s like canned or frozen. This is actually a good opportunity for students to learn tons of lessons.”
As the school’s test scores rise, he said the garden helps literacy come alive.
“Students might read the words of different kinds of flower, like marigold or zinnia, but it’s so much different to actually hold that marigold or that zinnia in your hand.”
Jennifer Clay, is with FoodCorps, a nonprofit that works to provide students with healthy food. As she works with students in the garden, she explains their work is part of their curriculum.
“The Superintendent of the Leland School District said that the Delta EATS program aligns with the requirements for the state. It’s more of an outdoor lab, it’s like an extension from the classroom,” she said.
Clay was born and raised in the Delta. She understands the region’s issues, and why it’s important for students to grow and eat nutritious food.
“We need to start them early, so they know how to cut back on a lot of things, and it’s very important for our kids to be able to live a longer life.”
High-calorie food options can outweigh low-calorie options in rural areas, and Shelson said health can be affected.
“With food insecurity, often times, the food that you’re going have access to is going to be the low nutritional value, high caloric, high sugar, high fat, but the most economic,” she said. “So you tend to eat as much of it as you possibly can, because you might not know when you’re going to eat again.”
Students eating the fresh produce from school gardens benefits their health, according to Carolyn Willis with Delta Health Alliance.
“It's very important for our children to know where fruits and vegetables come from,” Willis explained. “Some of our children have some chronic diseases like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, some of our children also have asthma, we are hoping that these health benefits of introducing fresh fruits and vegetables will also decrease these other health risks that we see in our children.”
Back in the garden, the students are getting ready to eat their pasta salad. One group is washing up and getting ready to serve, while others sit around a picnic table.
“I never ate this before,” one of the students said, adding she hoped it tasted good.
It’s time to eat, and the students sit at a picnic table anticipating the pasta salad.
With Delta EATS, Betz hopes to convey to kids the food we put in out mouth matters.
“There’s really a choice of health and wellness, a choice of unwanted disease and sickness…and it all starts at the dinner table,” he said.
The students are not only happy with the meal, but with their progress.
The students enjoy the food they grew and ultimately made. As they finish their meal, they recite their garden chant.
“Reap or harvest, we must show
It takes love to make things grow
Our roots are strong, and this we know
When our muscles start to show.”
The students say goodbye for the day, but the seeds they planted are just beginning to grow.
Alexandra Watts is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. www.ReportforAmerica.org