Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott runs Foot Print Farms, a 68-acre sustainable farm inside the city limits of Jackson, MS and a Whole Cities Foundation Community Partner. This is her story in her own words.
Growing up in Mississippi with my grandparents during the Civil Rights movement, our home was a safe house used to shelter voter registration activists from danger. My grandparents said that I need to go get my armor so I can come back and fight. That armor they spoke about was education. So, I’m not just planting seeds to grow crops, but also planting seeds in the minds of youth to build a legacy of knowledge to sustain our communities.
My quest for knowledge took me to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where I earned my Bachelors in Administration and my MBA. I then worked as an investment banker through an internationally based firm. Upon receiving my first bonus check in 1994, I purchase this land in my home town, Jackson, MIssissippi.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001, catapulted my second quest: pursuing my PhD in Urban Higher Education. Earning this degree was a great accomplishment, but my heart needed more. So, I boxed up my stilettos and red bottoms and bought a pair of work boots. Through this journey, my passion, Foot Print Farms was born.
The need for access to local affordable healthy food is a growing concern in the minority communities. Statistical data show that the number of minorities with health related disparities such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, has increased at alarming rates. Now more than ever are we seeing these disparities appear in younger generations.
Coach Jeff Gibson, an educator at one of the lowest ranking high schools in Jackson, came to me to ask for a donation for the football team. They did not have any weights, they needed uniforms, supplies, everything. Instead of offering a donation of dollars, I offered access to acres. This land would be a valuable short and long term resource. Through farming, the learned science, economics, business, discipline and self-worth. While simultaneously they are producing products to sell and get what they need. The result? Forty-nine young men learning, working and planting their own acres at Foot Print Farms. This is “Football on and off of the field.”
Having all of these future farmers on the land kicked me into action. I had to bring on more knowledge about agriculture, science, team work and business. Foot Print Farms’ first partner is Dr. Bill Evans, a plant scientist. Dr. Evans provided expert knowledge that was key to developing our young men into knowledgeable, self-sufficient scientists. Nature Walk is a service disabled, veteran owned business that teaches young men the importance of utilizing nature to grow and sustain a lucrative business. The young men are taught how to select wood from the land and create beautiful walking cane masterpieces. Mr. Ruben Evans, the owner of Nature Walk, prides himself on teaching the young men a skill that they in turn can sell and bring in valuable resources to sustain their football activities on campus.
As a representative of the farmers of Mississippi, I entered Whole Food Market with the intention of forming a partnership for local growers. The scale was increased 1000 times when I was introduced to Whole Cities Foundation. I had ideas about how to get local food to the people of our communities. Whole Cities offered the opportunity for us to have a major impact while enabling us to open a “Whole” new avenue for agriculture in the city of Jackson. The model would create a ripple effect in the state of Mississippi and is designed to be sustainable and duplicable both nationally and internationally.
Remembering how my grandparents organized, the root of the Black community is still the church. How can we bring a new twist to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)? I started to organize churches in an effort to get fresh, healthy food to the people of the community. This was my big “aha!” moment. And through this organizing, Farm 2 Faith was born! Now we are working with the Mississippi Faith Based Coalition and The Good Life. We will also partner with USDA SNAP program to allow access to local affordable, healthy fresh food to its program participants We will deliver 3000 pounds of food a week starting April 2015.
The plan is to deliver to ten churches and have 20 parishioners from each to buy 15 pounds of food per week. A member will be trained at each church to share healthy cooking knowledge and tips on how to utilize the food that week. This will impact a lot of people. Many who have nothing in their pockets and/or nothing more than a plant in their backyards. The community will be getting food produced in and by the community. They will also have an opportunity to learn and grow as a farmer as well.
I want the land to speak to the people and the people to speak back to the land. If anyone is looking for a pot of gold, its right here, right underneath our feet. It’s good to you and for you. We are in the renaissance. You don’t need 100 acres to farm....Farming starts in your own backyard.
Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott is the President of the Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Association and the President of the Hinds County Soil and Water Conservation District. In October 2014, Foot Print Farms was awarded the Outstanding Minority Business Award for the Central Region from the Mississippi Minority Business Alliance.