By Carol D. Andersen
Healthy eating starts with the farmers, says Dr. Cindy Ayers Elliott, co-founder of the Farmers Hands Market, which recently opened near the Jackson Medical Mall to connect Mississippians with locally grown produce. The new farmers market was a collaboration between Elliott’s Foot Print Farms and the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation (JMMF), funded by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, to improve access to healthier foods in urban areas. It is now funded by TIME, Inc. (To Improve Mississippi Economics, Inc.). The market was established not only to provide consumers access to fresh, healthy foods, but also to supply a culinary kitchen that opened inside the mall last year.
Elliott, a former Wall Street investment banker, came home to Mississippi after 9/11 to direct a nonprofit working on agricultural policy. “But I knew I couldn’t help farmers just by talking policy to them,” she says. “I needed to immerse myself in their world. For me, the questions were: What is lacking in my community, and how can I help?” So she founded the state’s largest urban growing operation, Foot Print Farms in 2010 on 68 acres of land in southwest Jackson. The farm operates as a worker cooperative, and through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, offers customers a wide range of produce, from kale, carrots and onions to tropical crops like callaloo (a high-protein Caribbean green) and edible hibiscus, as well as livestock including cows and goats. Foot Print Farms’ mission encompasses a variety of outreach initiatives, such as educating younger generations about agriculture, enhancing community availability of nutritious foods, utilizing food to tackle health challenges like diabetes and heart disease, fostering entrepreneurial prospects for community members, and promoting deliberate environmental stewardship.
The new Farmers Hands Market and Culinary Kitchen are part of that outreach. The JMMF acquired the culinary kitchen three years ago but did not have a network with local farmers to supply the facility. “They reached out to Foot Print Farms to connect with farmers, and to help with the marketing needed,” says Elliott. “Foot Print Farms has worked diligently for the past 13 years to create partnerships with farmers throughout the state – as well as nationally and internationally.” Elliott and her team now partner with more than 200 farmers, providing the volume needed to operate the culinary kitchen.
With Elliott’s connections, the culinary kitchen finally opened in December 2022 with Chef Sherron Day (“Chef She-She”) at the helm. Day is a self-taught culinary artist who has worked with Jackson celebrity chef Nick Wallace and created her own small business, Just In Thyme, LLC, during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating prepared meals for purchase using healthy, local ingredients. Elliott tapped Chef She-She to lead the culinary kitchen at the medical mall because she “doesn’t just talk – she does.” The mission of the culinary kitchen is to bridge the Farmers Hands Market with end-users: people who want to eat healthy, delicious food created with locally grown farm products.
“It’s a farm-to-fork operation,” says Elliott. “It is also educational. Chef She-She doesn’t just show people how to cook, she is educating them about where the food comes from, how it’s grown, who is growing it, how to prepare and store the food and how to cook it in a variety of ways, including techniques for addressing health issues like diabetes or hypertension through diet.”
The Farmers Hands Market is currently open every Friday and Saturday in the northwest corner of the Jackson Medical Mall campus, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In September, with the fall harvest season, the market will begin opening year-round, Elliott says. The Farmers Hands Culinary Kitchen is located inside the medical mall through the east retail entrance and is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. offering a variety of prepared vegetables, soups and salads (with optional meat add-ons), as well as fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Learn more at farmershandsmarkets.org.