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Before the federal government started supplying food for kids in school, it was grassroots organizing that kept our children fed. That's right. In January 1969 at an Episcopal church in Oakland, California, the Black Panthers launched the Free Breakfast For School Children program, the first of its kind in the country. Almost immediately, kids participating in the party's program began to perk up. Their attention spans increased. They weren't falling asleep as much in class. Their grades improved. Eventually, across 45 programs, thousands of kids were provided with a healthy breakfast. 

Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississippi, where folks like Sunny Baker and native Mississippian Dorothy Grady Scarbrough, are making sure Mississippi kids are fed, and fed with nutritious food, at that. Baker is the co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, which connects farmers with schools so that they can bring in their locally-grown produce. Their work has proven crucial for helping keep kids fed while they learn remotely. It's also a template for how to improve school lunch. 

See also: A fresh look at Houston's Black urban farmers

Xander Peters: Could you tell me more about your role in the Mississippi Farm to School Network?  

Dorothy Grady Scarbrough: I serve as co-director of Mississippi Farm to School Network, along with native Mississippian Dorothy Grady Scarborough, who's based in the Delta. We started Mississippi Farm to School Network together in 2015. Her background is in school gardens, mine's in procurement for school cafeterias and child nutrition. It's a nice balance. She's from here. We need that. We have been steadily increasing Farm to School in Mississippi via just networking and providing resources and workshops and working directly with schools and farms to make this happen here. We were both doing farm-to-school work–she in the Delta, me in Oxford. 

We're starting to think through what this will look like if it was a statewide project. We are a part of some statewide food systems change work. We were one of the founding partners of the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative. Both of us have always been involved with the Mississippi Food Policy Council as well. We are systems change-oriented, and food equity and justice are at the core of everything we do. 

XP: Backing up a year ago when the world started closing in around us and you realized some schools might not be able to feed children, what was going through your mind?

SB: That was a crazy time. I had just had a baby. This was really in Dorothy's wheelhouse. Dorothy cares about the children of Mississippi more than herself, more than anyone. There was a lot of this very urgent need to figure out how we were going to get meals to students at home, because these are meals they rely on. Early on, like everyone else, we were sort of spinning around. What do we do? How do we fill this need? Dorothy started three different food banks in her community. It turned towards community-style work. We're used to working statewide, but both of us were really invested in what was going on in the cities where we live, in the communities where we live. That said, a little bit further into the pandemic, we noticed that everyone home with their kids was gardening. So, that is when we pitched an idea to the Northwest Community Foundation, Maddox Foundation, and Kellogg Foundation to start a home garden grant. And it really took off.

We had a lot of fundraisers interested in this type of thing. We raised $160,000 pretty freaking quickly to do this home gardening grant for 1,000 families, and we are still riding that. We've got close to 500 across the state, and we're about to do 500 more. It's actually shifted the way we do our work. 

See also: Hope in the rural South—Black students combat segregation, poverty, and dwindling school funding.

XP: Wow, that's incredible. Congratulations. Given your professional background, as we tip-toe into a somewhat new world post-pandemic, what are some of your public school food system critiques? 

SB: School food, in concept, is such an incredible idea, an incredible service. We help avoid childhood hunger by providing these meals while kids are in public school during the day. It's funded in part by the federal government and our federal taxes. And it was actually something that was spun off of an idea that the Black Panthers started with regards to school breakfast programs. So, this meal that kids are getting, when they enter into a school cafeteria, their learning should not stop; the cafeteria should be part of the larger school classrooms. If we're serving crap to kids, stuff that's packaged and heated and served and gross, whether or not it fits the USDA nutrition regulations, it's really a shame and a lost opportunity to teach our kids what they should be eating. That food that's good for you can taste really good, too, because taste is everything. It's why we eat food. I'd say the way that child nutrition has shifted towards heat and serve, towards consolidation, away from cooking in the cafeterias and more towards stuff that's prepackaged, precooked, ready to go, is a shame for our taste buds, first of all. And it's a real shame for teaching these kids how to eat and what to eat and adjusting their palates as they grow older towards fresh foods that are good for them. 

There's a lot of problems with the USDA nutrition regulations and meal patterns. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which happened under the Obama years, was the first significant change to child nutrition since the Truman years. It made a huge difference and it went a long way, but in a lot of ways, it fell short. Instead of doing more cooking from scratch and introducing salad bars, which is part of the idea, and doing more farm to school, what ended up happening was companies like Eggo and frozen pizza companies just did a lot of science to make their pizza and frozen foods meet those regulations. There are many, many, many schools and cafeterias and food service directors that have been cooking from scratch for a long time, or that are trying to switch to cooking from scratch, and that's really what we need to be doing: cooking from scratch, offering up salad bars, and then buying from local farms whenever possible. It is a funding source that is there. We're getting money from the federal government for these meals, especially in Mississippi. We have a very high percentage of students that get a free or reduced class meal from schools. 

XP: Like 75 percent, right? 

SB: It usually hovers between 75 and 80 percent.

XP: That's a lot. 

SB: Yeah. And then with this thing called community eligibility provision, schools that have over 50 percent can apply, so that every student gets a free meal. With the pandemic, we're seeing how important these meals are because people's financial status has changed very quickly. It just makes sense to do universal meals for every kid, to not have to worry about the complication of all the paperwork that's involved with divvying up your student population to see who can afford a meal and who can't. It's such a trivial thing. So, that's something good the pandemic has shown–we have our best fighting chance for universal meals than ever before. We are really seeing this importance of supporting our own community. That has been good for farm to school, as well. 

XP: I've also seen you critique the large-scale agriculture business model we see in the Delta. Like you said, school food should be produced in our own communities if possible. Are we getting a little bit closer to that reality? 

SB: Yes, yes. This is gonna take a pretty huge shift, but this is happening. We have good examples of how this is happening. In fact, in the Mississippi Delta, which is the richest farmland in the country, we are seeing probably the most farm to school happening across our whole state, because the Delta really does understand community on a deeper level. A lot of the Black communities in the Delta have had to be resilient and support themselves and support their own community, with not just a lack of support for the government, but actual hardships thrown in their way around every corner. That has led to these communities figuring out how to make projects like farm to school happen. 

So yeah, it's happening across the state. It comes and goes. We have a really high turnover for food service directors in Mississippi, which is a problem we really need to stop because longevity is what makes programs like this last. At this point, we have more schools willing to buy than we have farmers that are available to sell. There needs to be a lot more support for small-scale fruit vegetable growers in the state.

XP: I guess it's a symptom of covering the environment and foodways beats, but one thing I worry about with my newsletter is there aren't enough hopeful notes. You personally, what's keeping you hopeful at the moment? 

SB: I think the pandemic has uncovered a lot of truths about our food system that existed all along, that were just made clear. With a breakdown in basic services that were available, like long haul trucking and stuff like that, I think we have had to rely on community support more than ever before. So, I think we're headed in a good direction. We've gotten a little taste of the beauty of community support, and how that can really make us all better humans and a better community. I think it'll be hard to turn back to an old way of doing things.

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Xander Peters

Xander Peters is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. His work appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, and Earther, among others.