OXFORD, Miss. – Results are in for last year's Farm-to-YOUth! project at the University of Mississippi, a program that brought fresh produce into rural elementary schools and introduced healthier options to more than 1,100 children and their families.
Global agriculture company Monsanto provided $200,000 in 2016 to establish the Food and Nutrition Security Support Fund at UM that was used to implement the produce distribution program as faculty and graduate students conducted nutrition research. In 2017, the company donated an additional $250,000 to the UM Foundation for phase two of the program, which is underway.
Led by David H. Holben, professor of nutrition and hospitality management and Gillespie Distinguished Scholar, Farm-to-YOUth! partnered with the Piggly Wiggly in Bruce to procure and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for the children to taste, both in their natural form and prepared in recipes. The program also sent home produce and accompanying recipes each Friday to more than 260 youth and their families to incorporate into their diets.
"I'm thrilled to report the success of last year's program in that the data showed a positive impact on some of the eating patterns in households for participants in the take-home produce program," Holben said.
Second-year graduate student Michelle Weber of Cincinnati, Ohio, was on the front lines of produce preparation and distribution during last year's project. She has continued the work this academic year at Bruce, Calhoun City and Vardaman elementary schools.
"This year, we are going to the same schools, but we are giving them produce vouchers to take to the grocery stores," Weber said. "For every $10 families spend on fresh produce, they get 11 more dollars from the voucher to spend on produce.
"The overall goal is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in children and their families and ultimately try in any way we can to reduce food insecurity."
Weber said that connecting with students has been very rewarding.
"Last year, I was in Bruce Elementary three times a week, and getting to see the children try new fruits and vegetables that they've never had an opportunity to try before was an experience I'll never forget," she said. "This year, I've been able to reconnect with all of those children. It's taught me a lot about food insecurity in areas that I never knew about before."
First-year graduate students Tiffany Shirley, of Corinth, and Marta Dees, of Oxford, joined the Farm-to-YOUth! team this fall.
"I knew that food insecurity was an issue for families in Mississippi, but before this project, I didn't realize just how prevalent it was," Shirley said. "Just because communities in this area and where I grew up don't talk about it, it doesn't mean it isn't a problem. This research project has really opened my eyes to that.
"We've given the families the chance to get fresh fruits and vegetables that they might not have had before, and that I had growing up, but some of these kids haven't been able to experience as much. All they have to do is use the vouchers, pick out what they want and make their own creations at home with that food."
Dees appreciates the hands-on approach to studying food insecurity that Farm-to-YOUth! has provided as she and fellow researchers executed pre- and post-surveys in the schools.
"Instead of sitting in front of a computer reading article after article, we really had an experiential learning process," Dees said. "We were a part of every single paper, every paper clip, every envelope, and we got to see every teacher and every kid. That, to me, is more important than just reading it on a page.
"We really want to understand what kind of access they have to food, what kinds of food they are eating, what kinds of food they are feeding their children, but most importantly, the need. What kind of need do they have and what do they want?"
Piggly Wiggly owner Becky Wright noticed a rising interest from community members in recipes featuring the produce items sent home with the children.
"There was a lot of chatter on Facebook in our communities," Wright said. "Like 'What do I do with this butternut squash?' People were sharing their recipes and telling what their kids came home with.
"The parents would come in weeks later saying that they never knew they liked Brussels sprouts, and they'd found new ways to prepare Brussels sprouts. They were sharing it all on social media to see what other people were doing."
While surveys are still being collected from this year's project, the data from last year's study indicate Farm-to-YOUth! had real influence in the lives of its participants.
Teresa Carithers, interim dean of the School of Applied Sciences, praised Monsanto for its contribution to food insecurity research.
"Thirteen percent, on average, of households nationally and 18.7 percent of households in Mississippi are facing low or very low food security," Carithers said. "This tremendous gift from Monsanto allows us to examine best practices in community-based outreach while providing healthy food to families in our more rural, neighboring towns."
The School of Applied Sciences recently recognized Holben for his contributions in scholarly teaching, scholarship and research with the first Gillespie Distinguished Scholar Award.
"The success of the Farm-to-YOUth! project is a great example of Dr. Holben's research efforts that exemplify a Gillespie Distinguished Scholar," Carithers said. "While he has a rich and diverse research and publication record, his work in food insecurity is drawing national attention to a critical problem.
"This year he was the senior author on the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' position paper on food insecurity in the United States."
The Food and Nutrition Security Support Fund is open to gifts from individuals and organizations who want to support food security research and outreach.
Checks supporting the fund may be mailed with the fund noted in the memo line to the UM Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655. Gifts also can be made online by visiting www.umfoundation.com/makeagift or by contacting Katie Morrison at 662-915-2135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Farm-to-YOUth! program, email email@example.com.