By Jodi Belgard
Natchez, Miss., resident Helen Brooks has been concerned about her county’s health for years. Her position at the Alcorn State University Ag Extension gave her an opportunity to work first-hand with her neighbors in the daily battle to eat healthier food.
The Natchez Farmer’s Market opened in 1999 with a few local farmers selling their produce, but the market has seen a spike in popularity in recent years.
The market is home to 16 growers from Mississippi and Louisiana, with eight of the farmers coming on board in the past two months.
Brooks, who is in charge of the market, said she felt a call to action about five years ago.
“At the time, we were adjacent to the fattest county in the country – Jefferson County,” she said. “That’s when I started pushing healthier (eating habits) to help with the (Adams County) obesity rate.”
That call to action is much like the one Humana and the Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) felt when they partnered to develop a blueprint to improve the health of Adams County residents.
When Humana reached out to Brooks to discuss its goal of improving health 20 percent by 2020, Brooks said it was a perfect fit.
“We want to be here for our grandkids and kids,” Brooks said. “In order to do that, it has to be a collaborative effort. It was like a marriage made in heaven. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Brooks wants to do her part to educate the residents of Adams County. She holds classes through the Alcorn State Ag Extension to teach children and adults how to read nutrition labels and how to cultivate a garden.
A few years ago she implemented a three-prong health and wellness program that focuses on nutrition, physical fitness and the creation of a community garden. The program now stretches from Natchez to Vicksburg – about 75 miles – and the partnership with Humana and CHMI only stands to strengthen the program.
Brooks’ goals for the farmer’s market are in tune with those of Humana and CHMI.
According to the blueprint, Humana and CHMI will work together with residents over the next five years to “implement a farm-to-table movement by partnering with the faith-based community and in partnership with existing local growers and regional distributors to establish a regional fresh food distribution network.”
In this aspect, Brooks is ahead of the curve. She helped to establish the first community garden at Mount Bethel Church about three years ago.
When Brooks isn’t teaching classes or traveling the region talking to Mississippians about the benefits of healthy eating, she spends her days at the farmer’s market talking to customers about the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
“A lot of customers want fresh produce because that’s how they ate growing up,” Brooks said. “Now, I see people wanting it because it’s healthy. We have a lot of juicers who buy their blueberries and peaches from us. I’ve seen health improvements in many of my regular customers.”
Rodney Matthews of Matthews Farms across the Mississippi River in Ferriday, La., delivers vegetables to the market at least three times a week.
Matthews, 81, has farmed all his life. He received a degree in agriculture from Southern University in Baton Rouge, and he’s put it to good use.
He said he’s noticed the rising popularity of homegrown produce, as well.
Keeping residents connected to the soil is one thing that keeps them coming back.
Natchez resident Brenda Bath is a longtime customer of the market.
“The produce is delicious,” she said. “You can’t get it anywhere else.”
“It’s a toss-up between tomatoes and squash when they’re in season – if you can get them.”