Words by Zack Grossenbacher
Photos by Michael Hanson
When Dorothy Grady-Scarborough was young, she waited for the persimmons to ripen. Her mother never worried about the kids eating them too early. “If you ate them too soon,” she said of the sour unripe fruit, “you would never eat another one, because they would just wither your mouth.” But in due time, they became a staple in several desserts. Persimmon trees are not around as they used to be, though. She saw them recently in a seed catalogue. “I was floored that you can still buy them,” she said.
Grady-Scarborough remembers early on when getting quality food was a fact of life for people on the Mississippi Delta, and she now dedicates her time to returning nutritious food to her community. Once a nurse at Bolivar Medical Center, she was tired of seeing people come in with the same diseases day after day: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, renal failure. The most frequent cause of poor health was diet, and she wanted to do more than fight the symptoms.
In the mid-1990s, Grady-Scarborough worked with the North Bolivar School District to implement community gardens and higher health standards, by serving as a board member of Growing a Greener Mississippi. The response from the community was lackluster, and there were funding issues. She attempted to get the community involved, reaching out to local churches as contact points. Again, though, she found it hard to get people to take interest in growing their own food. “The buy-in was small then,” she said.
In 2005, she founded Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (MEGA). Through this organization, Grady-Scarborough encouraged community gardening, with an emphasis on home gardens. “Our overall mission was to be able to correct some of the health disparities that are prevalent in the community as it relates to our diet intake.”
Food quality is a major issue for Mississippians, especially young ones. As of 2011, 40 percent of Mississippi children were overweight, a number 7 percent higher than the second highest state, South Carolina. Mississippi children were also found to not consume the required amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, which studies show can result in poor academic performance, mental health issues, and reduce life expectancy.
With MEGA, Grady-Scarborough found success. In 2012, MEGA won a bid for a compound of portable classrooms on two and a half acres of farmable land in Shelby, Mississippi. Once utilized by the Mississippi Headstart Association, the buildings now house a fitness center, food pantry, and commercial kitchen. There are rows of greenhouses, pens for chickens and goats, planters, and dozens of rows where crops grow during the right seasons.
Since finding its new home, MEGA has engaged the community by providing a variety of food-oriented services. It has hosted cooking workshops with a professional chef and canning classes to prepare people for storing food during the off-season. It offers paid stipends to local school-aged youth who spend their time learning to farm and tend to livestock. MEGA provides food, in some capacity, to over 100 families. Despite overseeing all of this, Grady-Scarborough says she’s just “part-time.” She is also a co-founder of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, which seeks to get farm raised food into Mississippi's school lunch lines.
At home, she spends time with her 11 grandchildren, instilling in them a love for homegrown food. She worries that before too long, many foods that define the area will disappear. Her next personal venture will be growing a Pawpaw tree. “The fruit I understand is awesome,” she said. “I was little, and I remember it. I just don’t remember the taste from then.”