This article was originally published on the Agricultural and Food Law Program of the University of Arkansas’s blog. 

We asked Andy Frame, one of this year’s LL.M. Candidates, to write about the conference that he attended last week in his home state of Mississippi. The conference provided a testimony to the energy and enthusiasm for local food and sustainable agriculture today. And, it evidenced the wide range of issues associated with our food system. Andy is great blogger, thanks to his journalism background and this year’s work at Food Safety News as the Marler Clark Graduate Assistant.  So, we knew he would do a great job reporting back to us.  Here’s Andy’s post:“Don’t just talk about it.  Do it.”

That was one of many messages expressed on Friday, March 1, in Oxford, MS, at the2013 Mississippi Food Summit, a forum on local food systems and sustainable agriculture.  That particular command was given by Jim Lukens, the executive director of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

A barrage of speakers gave their experienced perspectives on what is happening in Mississippi – and what can happen in the future – to connect the state’s rural and urban citizens through fresh locally grown food.

Mark Winne, an author of several books on regional food systems, served as the keynote speaker.  Winne, a former executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, CT from 1979 to 2003, said his focus is to “develop new standards of community wealth, with a legacy of healthy bodies, clean air and water, and with a food system that is sustainable and just.”
Winne emphasized the importance of active participation in public policy, saying that while “the food revolution,” happens on the ground one project at a time, it is through good food policy where things can change quickly, and in a big way.
If Winne was the pasture-raised pork shoulder on the forum’s prix fix menu of speakers, four panels of farmers, policy makers, non-profit organizers, government employees and successful business leaders fed the crowd the rest of the day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Each panel had a theme:  Human and Environmental Health; What is a Local Food System?; Models and Innovations, Invigorating Local and Regional Economies; and Building Community, Opening Doors and Strengthening Partnerships.
The conference was a success in that every speaker offered a different way of looking at this complex food movement.  By no means is this all inclusive of what was said on Friday.  This is a brief summary of roughly half of the speakers.
Human and Environmental Health
Nancy Woodruff, the new president of the Mississippi Food Policy Council, came to Louisville, MS, five years ago as a holistic health practitioner.  Woodruff said she had to stop counseling people through holistic methods because of the lack of a base of high quality foods necessary for her success.  Now through the Mississippi Food Policy Council, she is promoting “farm-to-school” programs and farmers markets around the state.
Donna Speed, the Director of Nutrition Services for the Mississippi State Board of Health, added to the conversation on connecting farmers to schools by talking about her role in the farm-to-preschool program.  Speed was glad to report that Mississippi is in the top three in the country for preschool nutrition guidelines.  “Farmers need to be aware of what the Department of Health is looking for,” Speed said.  “The nutrition guidelines will drive demand for farmers.”

Speed said schools aren’t the only place for farmers and youth to connect.  Childcare centers need food also, she said, and parents are asking those childcare centers to provide healthier foods more than ever.

Finally, Speed said having gardens at the schools helps educate children about what they are eating.

“If the kids grow it, they’re going to eat it,” Speed said.

“What is a Local Food System?”

Shelly Johnstone talked about the progress she’s been a part of in Hernando, MS, as manager of the Hernando Farmers Market, and through development of a food hub that would connect local growers with a wider market.

Edwin Marty from EAT South talked about each segment of our food system.  He discussed production (growing plants and raising animals), processing (transforming and packaging), distribution (transporting, storing, and marketing), consumption (purchasing, preparing, and eating), and waste (composting and discarding).  Marty emphasized that a food system could never be considered sustainable if it failed to account for waste.

Marty, who recently published a book, Breaking Through Concrete, asked the advocates in the room to create food systems with intention by thinking about the consequences of each decision they make.

Tupelo farmer Will Reed, who founded Native Son Farm in 2010, talked about his business, which involves selling his fresh produce through a CSA (community supported agriculture), to local restaurants, and through direct sales.

Reed said his goals are to be economically stable, influence healthy eating in the community, use environmentally stable practices, grow vegetables in nutrient rich soil, and add to the local culture.  Reed listed a lack of infrastructure and a need for a better input supply chain as challenges to his business and to local food production in general.

Models and Innovations, Invigorating Local and Regional Economies

Paige Manning, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, began the third panel by discussing the growth of farmers markets in the state.  In just a few years, markets have grown from around 20 to more than 70 (26 of those being certified).  Manning stressed the benefits for state certification – which includes a sales tax exemption for growers – but pointed out that getting certified is not a difficult barrier to get past.

Mississippi state senator Gray Tollison discussed two bills aimed at supporting local food: HB 798 and HB 715.  HB 798, the Healthy Food Retail Act, recently passed the House and is due for a vote in the Senate.  It would seemingly provide healthy food retailers and non-profits access to funds through grants and loans.

HB 715 died in committee, however.  It would have exempted certain cottage food producers (homemade products such as jellies and baked goods) from certain health code regulations.

Building Community, Opening Doors and Strengthening Partnerships

Jim Ewing, a journalist, author, and organic farmer from Lena, MS, moderated the final panel.  Ewing recently published a book, Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating. 

Karen Wynne came to Oxford from the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network to share her experiences connecting with non-profits, farmer cooperatives, schools, and other stakeholders in a regional food system.  Her advice for anyone attempting to do the same was to look for authentic relationships, treat everyone like a leader, and support the organizations that are already doing the work they want to accomplish.

Keith Benson, a Holmes County, MS, native who works with the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture Production, had a clear message:  “With whatever you are planning, make sure you plan it with the farmers.”  Benson asserted that any sustainable food system would fail if the limited-resourced farmers were not supported, and therefore could not be relied upon to produce.

Benson added that a farmer’s most important needs are labor, equipment, and a reliable water source.

Glyen Holmes, another Holmes County native, began bringing food from farms to school in the mid-90s, and is still doing so with the New North Florida Cooperative.  Holmes showed a video clip of a CBS news report that showed him driving a refrigerated truck of fresh vegetables to schools in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.  He advised people trying to start similar projects to network, be professional, and to not promise more than you can do.

Mary Berry finished off the day by talking about her work with the Berry Center, a new organization based in Kentucky that is based on the work of her father Wendell Berry, her grandfather John M. Berry, Sr., and her uncle John M. Berry, Jr.  The Berry Center’s goals include the study of small-farm agriculture and young-farmer education.

After a day packed with energized speakers, the conference was handed over to theGaining Ground Sustainability Institute on Saturday for their annual Sustainable Living Conference.  Workshops included cooking from the garden year-round, how to make a worm bin, Mississippi edible perennials, green-building home improvements, a food policy council session with Mark Winne, canning, and home brewing, among many others.

Andrew D. Frame

LL.M. Candidate, LL.M Program in Agricultural & Food Law, University of Arkansas School of Law (graduation anticipated May 2013)
2012-13 Marler Clark Graduate Assistant
J.D., Mississippi College School of Law, cum laude
B.A., Auburn University (Journalism and Communications)
Experience includes Judicial Intern, The Honorable David Chandler, Mississippi Supreme Court; Law Clerk, Randall Segrest; Legal Intern, Office of Indigent Appeals
Other professional experience:  Realtor, Keller Williams Greater Athens, Athens, Georgia