Despite its history of agriculture and reputation for huge portions of delicious Southern food, Mississippi has a food insecurity problem. In many parts of the state, large grocery stores are shutting down and not being replaced, farmers markets are few and far between, and pre-packaged, processed food is often the cheapest, most convenient food available for low-income families.
Sow Reap Feed is an organization formed specifically to fight hunger and food insecurity. Founder Keith Elliott, a Jackson native, first recognized the need to help people have access to food while living in Nashville.
“My wife and I had a garden at our church, and we wound up growing way more food than we could use. Behind the church was a children’s home. I asked them if they could use the extra produce, and the director said, ‘We would love that,’ so we started funneling the extra food to them. We realized that places like the children’s home weren’t really getting what they needed – we had assumed they were taken care of. What we found was that most food pantries get packaged, processed, shelf-stable stuff, but were lacking in fresh vegetables and fruit. We actually started planting more food on purpose so we could give away more. We feel like, as Christians, we have an obligation to help others. This seemed like a perfect way to do that.”
In 2014, Elliott and his wife moved back to MS so that she could complete a clinical rotation. They never intended to stay. “We were eager to get back to Nashville, but the longer we were in Jackson, we started looking around at the needs right here in our backyard. In Hinds County, one out of every four people is food insecure. In some parts of the state, that number is one in three. Grocery stores are leaving communities. Our idea was that we take the produce section to the neighborhood,” Elliott says.
Sow Reap Feed grows food in two locations – the one in Ridgeland, which Elliott referred to as a “production site,” is similar to a standard farm and not open to the public. But the model the group is interested in pursuing is called a “microfarm” – a small garden, around a quarter of an acre with 60 raised beds, in the center of a neighborhood.
The organization’s first microfarm was planted in the Broadmeadow neighborhood in North Fondren. “Everyone from the neighborhood can come, get their hands dirty, learn how to grow food and also take food back with them,” Elliott says. The ultimate goal is for the produce grown in the microfarm to stay right there in the neighborhood.
One of the most rewarding things for Elliott is teaching people where their food comes from and empowering them to grow their own food. “Kids come out – some of them have never seen squash growing before – to see them light up and ask to come back and help out is amazing. Recently I took a crate of eggplant to a local restaurant, and some of the workers there flocked around and were so interested – they had never seen eggplant before.”
Sow Reap Feed would like to increase the number of restaurants using their produce. Currently, the majority of supporters and participants in the program are individuals. For every pound of produce sold, a pound is donated to someone in need. In the last year, the organization donated 2,000 pounds of food. “We pride ourselves in delivering high quality, consistent produce. We’re on the way to having a CSA (community supported agriculture) or subscription-type service, probably in the fall of this year or spring of 2019. The plan is to match the subscription so that for every subscription purchased, one is donated to an individual or family in need,” Elliott says.
In the middle of the Broadmeadow micro farm, there will soon be a large community table. Neighbors will come together with members of Sow Reap Feed and harvest ingredients from the garden for a big family-style meal. A local chef will prepare the food, giving instruction along the way. Then everyone will sit down together and share the meal, talking about their day in the garden and what they’ve learned. This is the vision of Sow Reap Feed – not only to increase access to healthy food, but to restore the sense of community through growing and sharing food.