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Student-run organic garden at Tougaloo providing fresh produce for local community

Student-run organic garden at Tougaloo providing fresh produce for local community
Student-run organic garden at Tougaloo providing fresh produce for local community(Tougaloo College)
Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 4:06 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Fresh bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and other veggies are budding on a three-acre organic garden in the most unlikely place - a college campus.

Tougaloo College owns it, but it’s not just a garden.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Tougaloo College Professor Julian Miller said. “Mississippi has the most fertile soil in the world, but 99% of our food is exported, so very little of the land here is actually used to grow food.”

So before the pandemic, Tougaloo’s Rueben V. Anderson Center for Justice took on this public health challenge.

And as you can imagine, they’ve faced one obstacle after another.

“The pandemic for one, but also the finances, securing the land and local farmers mentored us so we could create a high-yield production on a small plot of land,” Miller added. “We also had a huge problem with deer.”

But fresh ideas and help were never a problem.

A recent Tougaloo graduate co-founded the idea and students like Precious Thompson have helped grow the program since its inception.

“I was in a 4-H club in high school where we learned all things agriculture and it was fascinating!” Thompson said. “So when I learned about this in college, I was like, ‘oh my goodness,’ this is really cool! I didn’t have a green thumb, so I didn’t wanna go out there and kill the corn, but I still wanted to participate,” Thompson laughed.

So instead of working in the garden, Precious learned the business of agriculture.

“Using agriculture to serve people in the community is a huge industry! It blew my mind,” she said.

Thompson focused on how to use agriculture technology to grow produce and distribution.

“The first time we did a big distribution drive, I remember being happy that we were able to do it, but sad when I saw that there’s not a lot of access to fresh produce,” the Tougaloo senior said.

It started out as a learning experience. She never expected how it would change her life.

“I can be ungrateful about the opportunities that I have, but I have seen families that so are appreciative of the little bit of fresh food that they get,” Thompson paused. “It’s just put my whole life into perspective. I find myself waking up intentional about what I do because I see the impact I make in people’s lives.”

Between infrastructure and paying students what the college calls livable wages, Rueben V. Anderson Center for Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with Tougaloo to invest about $275,000 into the project.

In one year, with two harvests, the organic garden has produced 180 pounds of fresh produce to students on campus, local food pantries, and the community, including the Society of Saint Andrew.

The organization rescues fresh food from Mississippi’s farms and ensures the food gets to people who need it.

“We received peppers, squash, and zucchini from them and delivered the produce to Peace and Pearls, a local after-school program housed in several schools across the Metro.”

If not for the Society of Saint Andrew, food from farmers might go to waste. And the organization’s regional director, Langston Moore, says Mississippi can’t afford for that to happen.

“Poverty and hunger have a direct correlation. Take Hinds County, the child poverty rate is 28.2% and the child hunger rate is 22.9% which is an average of 25% or 1 out of 4 children in Hinds County live in poverty and experience hunger,” Moore added. “With many food pantries only having shelf-stable food, it’s important for us to mix in fresh, nutritious foods.”

Moore said a recent study shows the food insecurity rate will be 50% higher as people who have never experienced hunger need pantries.

“A recent study conducted by Save the Children stated that because of Covid-19, the food insecurity rate will be 50% higher. More people who have never experienced hunger are now and having to use services such as food pantries, SNAP, and even shelters. More close to home, the study also revealed that Jefferson County, Mississippi, will be the county with the highest food insecurity rate in the nation.

Tougaloo modeled this project after a similar program at Paul Quinn College in Texas. The once-struggling historically black college in Dallas is now thriving because of a garden called Watch Me Grow.

With high hopes, Tougaloo also hopes these small fields of tomatoes and greens, and kale will one day change agriculture in Mississippi.

For now - new upgrades to the garden allow for year-round production, so come November... it’s harvest time.

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