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The farm sending meals to children in a food desert


Around 70% of school children in Mississippi rely upon free or subsidised lunches. With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, one local farm has stepped in to ensure they still get nutritious food in their diet.

Foot Print Farms is 68 acres (0.3sq km) of farmland in Jackson city proper, just half a mile (1km) from the street. When you come onto the farm you see rolling hills, fields of crops, fresh produce, the poly tunnels we use for growing some crops year round – everything you would expect to find on a farm. We have goats and horses, too. And a little further back you see my home. This is truly where we live and work.

Although our farm is within Jackson city limits, parts of the city are considered a food desert. That means people struggle to get fresh fruit and vegetables because they live more than one mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of Mississippi is a food desert in this way. So the current situation is particularly worrisome.

When you go to the grocery store and you see shelves empty, it is scary. Some people are afraid to go in at all. I see some lines a mile long, with people sitting and waiting to get inside. This is the problem people are facing in Mississippi at the moment. Getting good, fresh, local food is hard.

We are considered a small farm, but we are the largest urban farm in Mississippi. It’s one thing growing the best fruit and vegetables, but if you can’t sell it in one or two days you lose it. Yet, there are people out there who really need it.

A lot of what we normally do relies on people getting close together. We put on cooking courses – we have a chef who works onsite here. Those have had to stop. We can’t have school groups on the farm. The farmers’ markets are still open but people might be scared to go to them. So we’ve had to think of a way to allow customers to come to us in a safe way. Fortunately we have 68 acres to do that.

Cindy Ayres sat in a greenhouse

Cindy Ayres has had to adapt some of the farm’s practices, only allowing customers on site for their drive-through market (Credit: Foot Print Farms)

My first reaction was “Oh my gosh” when I heard all the data from other countries about the virus. But for me, and other people in rural areas like Mississippi, there is always a crisis in terms of access to food. The pandemic is only making it worse.

We have been partnering with school districts. As the schools are shut, a lot of children are not getting the meals they would normally get under the national school lunch programme. A lot of families rely on them as a source of good, nutritious food. (Mississippi has the highest proportion of children dependent on free lunches in the US and has the highest food hardship rate in the country.)

The schoolchildren get lunches and hot meals, which we can prepare on site here, along with a bag with 7lbs (3.2kg) of fresh veggies from us that will feed four people for two days. This means their families are also getting food. Many of them didn’t have enough even before this started. We do what we can to make a difference.

We have a cute little pink bus, and people say ‘It’s the veggie lady that’s coming’ when they see it

What has been essential is bringing on three people to keep up these partnerships with local schools, and for people who can’t get to the grocery stores. For us, the partnerships with churches and community organisations and government entities have been so important.

We were already doing pop-up markets in food desert areas. We have a cute little pink bus that we use to drop off the school lunches and take fresh food to people that need it, and people say “It’s the veggie lady that’s coming” when they see it.

We have also been doing our farmers’ market twice a week since Covid-19 because of the demand from customers who still want to buy fresh food but cannot find it elsewhere. But since Covid-19 we opened the farm up as a drive-up pick-up market. We put in extra precautions – never letting customers get too close to the food, just having customers drive through the farm. Now people can pre-order with us by phone, drive up, and we put your food in your truck.

Two bright pink Foot Print Farm buses

Locals know when Cindy Ayres is on her way thanks to Foot Print Farm’s bright pink bus (Credit: Getty Images)

A small farmer like me has to be innovative from Jump Street, we have to be sparing and do it well in order to be able to continue.

For me, and other people in rural areas like Mississippi, there is always a crisis in terms of access to food

We started to do aeroponics (growing plants without soil using moisture in the air), which is unheard of on a small farm because of the economics. But we do it and publish the information to help out others. Small, medium or large – I want to help all farmers. Even if you’re just growing something on your patio.

I’m a native Mississippian, this is home. For a long time Jackson has been a food desert. We have been pushing the local movement for over 10 years, now. And the area around us is now no longer a food desert.

This interview with Cindy Ayres, founder of Foot Print Farms in Jackson, Mississipi, was adapted by William Park.

This article is part of Follow the Food , a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.