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Bringing Back the Art of Gardening In the Delta

Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Communications
Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Communications

For 20 years, Dorothy Scarbrough watched in her nurse’s scrubs as patient after patient was wheeled into the emergency room.

“They would be discharged on Monday and by Wednesday or Thursday most of the same patients would be back in the ER,” she says. All with the same familiar problems.

“Blood sugars are high, blood pressure is up, another mild stroke, another case of diabetes,” says, Scarbrough. Again and again, she watched out of control diabetes force doctors to amputate legs.

“Talking to the patients and other people, we knew it was based upon their lifestyle,” she says. “More or less it was what they were eating.”

That’s when it clicked.

“I said to myself you know my father never had diabetes. Dad always had food that he grew himself,” says Scarbrough, 57, remem- bering the farm her family sharecropped throughout her childhood. “Even on his dying days he had a field of produce and fresh fruit.”

But now, Scarbrough realized, the Delta was full of people who wanted nothing to do with working a garden. What’s more, all too many were eating gas station food and getting fatter and fatter. She decided to do something about it.

Scarbrough started from the bottom up. She began shaping her slice of Bolivar County by revitalizing the local school wellness council, a state-required advisory board that was inactive. With the help of others, she began school gardens at Brooks Elementary in Duncan, along with the middle school and high school in Shelby. She chairs a wellness council covering Shelby, Duncan, and Alligator.

“Our goal was we’d get the kids involved so they would push mom or dad into what they’ve been growing at school,” she says.

But the change she desired wasn’t unfolding. Scarbrough got on the board of the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative, a Delta Health Alliance-sponsored program to encourage growing healthy food in the region. And she got involved with a pilot program through Tufts University aimed at developing food gardens in people’s back yards. But she had a larger vision still. She created MEGA—Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture, pooling her own money, grants and donations.

Driving down Old Highway 61 in Shelby, you’ll miss MEGA if you don’t keep a sharp lookout. Seven doublewides from a former Head Start center, painted a pristine blue, are huddled together and connected by a clean stone path. Within the trailers MEGA houses a fitness center (adorned with frugally obtained Craig’s List equipment), a food pantry, a training center for cooking classes, and a space designated for the youth mentoring program. She also offers classes in how to can and sell food.

Scattered across the property are pear trees, plum trees, apricot and peach trees. Twelve varieties of peppers. Rows of diverse lettuce spe- cies. A composting area. A greenhouse. Schools of talapia swimming in a commercial-size aquaponic tank in which fish and plants symbioti- cally feed from each other’s waste. Chickens will be arriving soon.

It makes her smile to think about it. It reminds her of the old days.

“When I was growing up in Shelby there were gardens everywhere, almost every backyard and every home had a fruit tree.”

There’s a map framed beneath fluorescent bulbs at the Bank of Bolivar County in Shelby. It illustrates the small town as it was long ago—verdant, gardens in almost every yard. The way Scarborough dreams of it being today.

Gardening throughout the Mississippi Delta has been on a steady decline since the 1960s. “I call it a lost art,” Scarbrough says. “The new generation came along, didn’t want any part of it. With some people I can’t mention gardening without hearing, ‘I don’t want nothing to do with outside, I’m not goin’ out there, I’m not chopping any grass, I’m not pickin’ up no hoe.’ They still don’t want anything to do with hard labor,” she says.

Scarbrough isn’t discouraged. She knows that old hab- its are persistent. That’s why one of MEGA’s chief goals is teaching people how to grow their own food.

It pays off, she says. “You get exercise while you’re doing it, Vitamin D from the sun. And the result is you’ve got a lot of fruits and vegetables you don’t have to pay for.

“We had a young lady once who wanted tomatoes and I told her she can go out in the garden and get ’em and she said I’m not going out there, bugs and gardens and stuff and I said girl, you must not want ’em. Because if I have grown them, I’m gon- na give’ em to you. But I will NOT pick ’em and bring ’em.”

Later that same day the young lady came back to tell Scarbrough not to bother. She had used her food stamps to get some tomatoes. Instead of a lecture, Scarbrough gave her a promise. And the next time that young lady came by MEGA, Scarborough had an EBT ma- chine so she could use her food stamps to buy the tomatoes from her.

“Even now they have food stamps, they still don’t buy fruits and vegetables,” Scarbrough says.

But sheer compliance with wise advice is not the pri- mary issue afflicting this embattled region. The issue is access.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture extensively researches barriers that prevent people from accessing “healthy and affordable food retail- ers.” Vast areas of the Delta fall into that category. Popularly called “food deserts,” these areas are filled with people who can’t afford to get to a grocery store and therefore must resort to less nutritious sources like gas stations. According to the USDA, at least 14 of the 17 counties that make up the Delta have low to severely low access to a grocery store. Bolivar, Scarbrough’s county, is one of the worst. It is estimated that over 10,000 people there have little to no reasonable access to fresh food.

As a result, many people in the Delta are starving for healthy food.

Scarbrough attends conferences across the country and is amazed at the gardening activity in urban areas like New York. “Their houses are so close together, yet they still find places to grow food. I call them edible front yards. In our region we have open fields everywhere and we’re not growing like that,” she said. “Even people here in Mississippi that live in the hills and on the coast, they’re growing food. It’s the Mississippi Delta that’s not growing food!”

Scarbrough is tapping into the irony of this rich agrar- ian region. In the Delta, commodity crops are king: soybeans, corn, cotton, rice. It is produced in abundance. Studies show that 90 percent of the food consumed in the Delta is import- ed. Much of the crops that are grown go to feed animals.

So where is the food in this land of plenty?

For now it’s flourishing in front of seven blue doublewides on the side of Old Hwy 61. It’s at the Cleveland farmer’s market established just eight years ago. It’s in the hands of any torchbearers willing to get innovative and get their hands dirty. Those people are out there.

“I always tell people that I’m a registered nurse by trade and a farmer out of love,” Scarbrough says. It’s an uphill battle, she knows. But she is not about to quit. There are too many seeds to plant.

–Story by John Bobo

–Story published by Delta Magazine

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