Editor's note: Story and photos by Adelia Kittrell. Adelia has been with Heifer International for three and a half years. After two years in Peace Corps Paraguay, she began working with Heifer as a residential volunteer at Heifers learning center outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, in May of 2009 and currently works in the Philanthropy Department at Heifer Internationals headquarters as a Resource Development Associate.
As an employee of Heifer, I sometimes get the chance to visit our work in the field. In September, I had the opportunity to visit one of Heifers projects right here in the Arkansas Delta, Seeds of Change. Like most people, when I think of Heifers work, I picture an exotic locale somewhere across the world. It was extra special for me to visit this project because my Grandfather grew up in the Arkansas Delta in Woodruff, and this trip gave me an opportunity to not only see what Heifer is doing in my back yard, but also how Heifer is changing the lives of people that very well could have been my family.
Heifer started working in communities in the Delta in October 2011. Seeds of Change is unique to Heifer in that it not only seeks to lift its participants out of poverty through agricultural inputs, but also to build local social capital and shift the culture of the region to one of hope and trust. In the words of one speaker that day, re-create hope. This is not an easy task. A theme we heard repeatedly during our visit from town leaders and project participants was the number of organizations that have come and gone, abandoning participants and leaving them with a sense of suspicion. Touring the town of Hughes, AR, with its mayor and seeing the housing situation, gave me a sense of urgency, a need to understand how this could happen not two hours away from the bustling downtown center of Little Rock where I live and work.
When you hear the term food desert, Hughes is the definition. The local grocery store burned down last year, leaving a Dollar Store as the only source of food. The closest grocery store is 20 miles down the road, so unless you have a car (many residents do not, and there is no public transportation), your only source of nutrition is processed or canned food from the Dollar Store. This means that even if you wanted to eat nutritiously, you could not. If you live in Hughes, you do not even have the choice between a summer salad and a bag of chips. It is hard for me to fathom a livelihood in a town without a grocery store.
But that is just the beginning of the list of problems residents of the Delta face. In Hughes, the median household income is $19,375. The median household income for the nation is $51,914. One hundred percent of children in Hughes are on free or reduced lunches, and 44.6 percent of the population receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. So with limited resources and the high price of fresh food, even if there were a grocery store in Hughes, how could they afford the healthy food they need to maintain energy and a healthy mind? The implications are great, far-reaching, and for another blog post.
Heifers first step in this dire situation is to teach families to grow food for their own consumption. This year, the farmers that Heifer worked with were able to lower their grocery bills and dramatically increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. These families have plans to start a farmers market next year to provide a source of food to others. Heifer is also working to organize a coalition helping to bring farmers together and teach them the best ways of growing food crops such as salad greens and southern peas so they can diversify their production and access additional markets.
Even though Hughes lies in the middle some of the best farmland in the country, the vast majority of the acreage is used for crops such as cotton, soy and corn not grown for human consumption (cotton for textiles, soy and corn are for animal consumption and ethanol). Additionally, the majority of farm acreage lies in just a few hands, or its use is complicated by the legal limbo of heir land, or parcels of land not designated in a will, resulting in many, sometimes hundreds, of legal owners scattered around the country, thus forcing the land to lie fallow in many cases.
Having my eyes opened to the circumstances of poverty in this region, I realized the implications it has had on my family and others living in the region. Jobs are few and far between in this region, and lack of education is a common problem. In neighboring St. Francis county, 28.7 percent of kids never finish high school, 37.5 percent finish high school (or equivalent), and only 33.8 percent gain education beyond high school. There is a need for opportunities for local advancement to keep people, especially those with a college degree, at home to help grow the local economy and infrastructure. In the case of my family, once my grandfather and his brothers acquired a college degree, they left and are currently scattered across the country. Without dramatic changes, the future holds little opportunity for advancement in the Delta. This brain drain crisis is a result of the huge problems this area is facing. However, while there is recognition of these problems, people first need a reliable source of nutritious food, shelter and access to clean water. Heifer is working with communities to face these basic problems, starting with what we do best: teaching a man to fish.
You can help re-create hope in the Arkansas Delta (and Appalachia) by giving to Heifer's Seeds of Change project. Click here to donate now.