Today is World Food Day, and organizations worldwide are taking collaborative action to end global hunger. Agricultural co-ops, this year’s focus, help smallholder farmers increase their yields and income while providing nutritious food to local populations. Read about a co-op in east Arkansas working with the Farm to School Movement to bring produce to its local school district.
Even though the Arkansas Delta boasts fertile soil and farmland, it stands as one of the most impoverished areas of the United States. Many of its people suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition and diet-related illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. Smallholder farmers, once plentiful in this region, endure diminishing markets and struggle to make ends meet.
Heifer’s Seeds of Change program has partnered with the National Farm to School Network to address hunger and poverty in the U.S. The movement seeks to connect local farmers to school cafeterias with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.
Farm to School Benefits Delta Farmers
Willie McKinney, an east Arkansas farmer and first-year participant in the Farm to School movement, estimates that his coalition sold 1,500 to 1,600 pounds of watermelon to the Forrest City School District this year.
“I like what I’m doing; it’s got a future,” McKinney said. “We had to learn a lot, but it’s really coming this way now.”
A lifelong farmer and Arkansas native, McKinney produces peas, watermelons, okra, cantaloupe, tomatoes and various greens on his 15-acre farm just a few miles west of Caldwell, Ark. He joined a coalition of farmers that formed a few years ago. The operation grew and eventually connected with the Farms to School movement last year through the East Arkansas Enterprise Community (EAEC). The EAEC works as a marketing agent for agricultural cooperatives. It buys their produce and sells it to a local market —in this case, the school district.
Farm to School Benefits School Children
In this 2011 article about the Farm to School movement, Forrest City School District Supervisor of Child Nutrition Evelyn Rayford said the watermelons they received from the EAEC through Farm to School were much better tasting and a better price than what they had been getting.
“One of the biggest benefits of the program we hope will come from the fact that the produce we’ll get will be fresher which will give us a longer shelf life. Instead of it getting harvested one day and shipped to us, which can take a very long time, it will be harvested right here in St. Francis County and to us within a day or two which will then give us more time to work with fresher food,” said Rayford.
The EAEC began with the Farm to School initiative last year and sold watermelons to the district for the high school. McKinney predicted the fledgling program will continue to grow and eventually, the farmers will each have one crop they are responsible for providing to the school district. This year, four farmers participated out of the 15 co-op members.
“The community buys straight from the farmers, and it’s a great help,” McKinney said. “It gives you a little pocket change and gas money.”
McKinney said he already sees increased economic development. He said he is now able to hire more people, including some of his grandchildren, and to hire people from the community, keeping jobs in the area. McKinney, who also works as a bus driver for the school district, said he feels hopeful.
“Things are getting better and better. It looks like it really is going to turn out alright.”
Heifer’s Seeds of Change program trains Delta farmers in sustainable production methods that lead to higher yields. Heifer began work in the Delta in 2011, and 15 individual producers have received sustainable agriculture training at the Heifer Ranch. Heifer plans to work more with the National Farm to School Network as the Seeds of Change program continues to develop.
To help support Heifer’s Seeds of Change program, visit our Fund a Project page.
Do you know of a Farm to School program in your area? Tell me about it in the comments section below.