When I think of the Mississippi Delta region, I think of the blues – the legendary sound that captures the heart and soul of community in times of struggle.
Tunica County, Mississippi, known to many as the “gateway to the blues,” is the perfect representation of this – a region that’s struggled with persistent poverty, food insecurity and poor health for decades, but is united by passion, resilience and community spirit to create a brighter future.
While Tunica is surrounded by rich soil, an astounding 30% of its 10,000 residents live in food-insecure homes. With only one grocery store located in the center of town, an almost impossible journey for those living outside the city limits, the county is a true food desert. Despite these struggles, community leaders and organizations are working together to make changes that will provide better food access and improve health across the community.
One great example of this work is the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Commit to Health campaign, which is supported by the Walmart Foundation. Through this, Tunica Parks and Recreation has the kitchen equipment needed to provide healthy food to the community, expand nutrition education and gardening efforts and offer youth a healthy, positive environment to learn, engage and socialize outside of school.
Tunica Parks and Recreation is guided by an intense sense of purpose and mission to create a healthier community. When I walked into the G.W. Henderson Community Center earlier this summer, that drive and dedication was evident. Daily, over 130 campers are greeted by an enthusiastic staff and a hot breakfast that is prepared on site. In this community, the last healthy meal some students had was lunch the previous day. As the kids enjoyed breakfast, I watched them laugh, joke, socialize and smile—body language that doesn’t exist when your mind is focused on where your next meal will come from.
The children not only attended classroom lessons on nutrition; they also got hands-on experience outside in the garden. Beans, squash and corn were growing strong, and the kids joyfully picked weeds as they spotted baby watermelons coming in. One child explained, “We grow these foods because we have limited irrigation” – a challenge being addressed by multiple community partners with the installation of a new greenhouse that will allow year-round produce, an extreme need in a community where fresh fruits and vegetables are limited.
Although challenges exist, the kids are learning. Several explained how “fresh fruits and vegetables help them to stay healthy and get the vitamins and nutrients they need.” A few even shared that they’ve started gardens at home.
But this camp provided more than nutrition and food education. The kids also participated in physical activity, STEAM programming and opportunities to engage with positive role models and peers. Marguerite Howard, a parent of two children who attended the summer program, shared how the program helped her family. “This camp provided incredible benefits to my kids and my family – it provided healthy snacks, athletic activities and a chance to socialize with their peers. That’s a lot better than sitting at home watching TV all summer,” she said.