I get so many different reactions when I tell people I’m moving to Mississippi. Most of them fall within the spectrum of the polite “nod and smile” and the “wait…WHAT?!” One of my co-workers who had driven through the South as a long-haired hippie in the ’70s told me to be careful, “especially with your hair.” I don’t blame the skeptics. Mississippi has its fair share of issues: it’s the state with the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. Mississippi also spends less per student on education than all but four other states. And then there’s the persisting legacy of slavery and segregation and the puritanical, conservative politics that scare many a bleeding heart liberal like myself.
I’m the first to admit that I didn’t think I would ever actually live south of the Mason Dixon line for all the reasons mentioned above. When I applied to FoodCorps, my first choice was Boston, MA. I played roulette with my second two choices, checking the box that said “I’ll go anywhere.” When FoodCorps notified me that I had made the first cut for Mississippi, my initial reaction was relief (I passed the first round!) then fear (Mississippi? The South?) then acceptance (dude, you can do this), and then wholehearted enthusiasm and genuine excitement.
I didn’t apply to FoodCorps to work with people that think the same way as me. And I don’t intend to proselytize people like some eat-more-local-vegetables evangelist. I subscribe to FoodCorps’ mission which is to give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food. What better place to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and bring high quality local food into school cafeterias than Mississippi? Obviously, there is a need for some serious food system reform, but there is also growing momentum that surrounds health and food activism in the Magnolia State. Organizations like the Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity and the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, along with the Healthy Students Act and the Move to Learn Initiative passed by the state government are fomenting real change. According to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, childhood obesity in MS dropped by about 13% from 2006 to 2011. The Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas of the US, is also one of its most fertile agricultural regions. Many Mississippians remember a time, just decades ago, when local produce and home gardens were abundant. Like seedlings pushing their pale green heads out of the soil, things are really starting to move and change. I can’t wait to be a part of it.
On top of that that, I’m looking forward to being in a part of the country known for its hospitality, slower pace of life, good music, and good food. I’ve already had friends from Mississippi connect me via email with their family members in the area, or give me recommendations of good realtors, places to live, yoga studios to frequent. I’m constantly reminded by articles like this one that Jackson (or JXN) is a spunky, funky town filled with old school charm. When I lived in Madison, WI, I grew an unexpectedly profound admiration and appreciation of the midwest. I’m sure the same thing will happen in the South.