How schools are fighting back against obesity in Mississippi

By Dillon Mullan, Daily Journal

Chloe Buchanan isn’t scared of worms. She knows they’re good for the soil. Earlier this month, she dug into a garden bed with bare hands to plant cabbage with the rest of their third-grade class at Lawndale Elementary.

“Some people complain about the dirt, but I get it under my nails every time,” Buchanan said. “I didn’t like cabbage. I used to think it was disgusting, but I’ll eat it now.”

Kelsey Ioannou has been overseeing these gardening lessons at Lawndale and Tupelo’s pre-K since August. The Californian is the fifth service member from FoodCorps – a non-profit dedicated to connecting the country’s children with healthy food in school – to spend a year in the district. As part of the “Growing Healthy Waves” program, Tupelo has salad bars at Joyner and Parkway and vegetable gardens at its pre-K and five of its elementary schools.

“It’s hard to imagine living in Mississippi and not knowing your food comes from the soil,” Growing Healthy Waves coordinator Donna Loden said. “Speaking of obesity, we have a much better chance of fighting it when kids are growing the food themselves. It’s all about making that real life connection that if you want real food instead of Doritos or Cheetos, it starts with a seed.”

Twenty Northeast Mississippi’s 30 school districts source some cafeteria food from local farmers. During farm-to-school week earlier this month, Will Reed of Native Sons farm in Tupelo spent an afternoon in the Lawndale cafeteria speaking to students about their eating habits.

“The hope is that kids will gain more awareness of where food comes from and at least be exposed to some healthier ways of eating,” Reed said. “We’ve got some real health issues facing the state with the obesity rate, type II diabetes and heart disease being the number one killer. A lot of that is diet related.”