Since March 2009, Harvard Law School student teams have worked on legislation and advocacy related to food policy in the Mississippi Delta region. Students have worked on a range of projects which focus on two primary goals: (1) improving access to healthy foods for Mississippi residents and (2) spurring economic growth for small farmers and local food producers.
Timeline of Food Policy Initiative Projects and Achievements
Spring 2009: Students initially focused their work on policy, legal, and business issues affecting farmers markets. Farmers markets are a nationally recognized means of achieving several desirable goals: improved public health via increased access to healthy, fresh produce; increased revenue for local, small farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs; and a more sustainable, human- and environment-friendly regional food system.
Students provided business and legal advice to markets in the Mississippi Delta and worked with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) to amend state laws to promote the growth of markets. Over the semester, students helped to prepare a Mississippi Farmers Market Legal & Business Guide on a range of legal issues related to farmers markets.
Fall 2009: Students prepared Mississippi Farmers Market Legislative Recommendations on four main issues: sales tax, food safety laws, food assistance benefits, and county and municipal funding. Students traveled to Mississippi in January 2010 and met with MDAC and Mississippi legislators to explain their legislative recommendations. These recommendations led to a bill in the Mississippi House of Representatives to eliminate sales tax on food sold at Mississippi farmers markets.
Spring 2010: Students analyzed legal and policy issues surrounding the ability of Mississippi farmers markets to accept food assistance benefits like SNAP (food stamps) and WIC vouchers. After researching the problem and studying the approaches of other states, students provided market managers and policymakers with strategies to expand access to healthy, local produce for low and moderate-income residents. Students working on the food assistance project continue to advise Delta markets on an as-needed basis on various legal questions.
Fall 2010/Spring 2011: Students worked closely with the Memphis Food Policy Council and other stakeholders in the Memphis, Tennessee, area to recommend edits to the outdated Memphis Food Ordinance Handbook. The recommended edits addressed obstacles to accessing fresh, local food at farmers’ markets and food trucks, and made it easier for local growers to sell fresh food on a small scale.
Fall 2011: Students developed legislative recommendations for a state-wide Mississippi Farm to School bill. Students researched best practices for Farm to School programs around the country and developed recommendations for how the Mississippi State Legislature could support the growth of local Farm to School programs through legislation. The students submitted the completed report to a legislative Taskforce on Food Access, which had been set up by the State Legislature. That Taskforce used the report in full as their recommendations back to the Legislature. In January 2012, students drafted two Farm to School bills based on the recommendations, both of which were subsequently passed into law.
Spring 2012: Students developed a step-by-step purchasing guide for schools interested in starting to purchase locally grown food to serve in school meals. This guide includes information on how to develop a commercial relationship with a farmer, how to write food ordering forms that give preference to locally grown foods, and how to ensure that food being served in schools has been grown and handled safely. It also clarified the complicated process of developing a Farm to School program and seeks to give food service directors confidence to start this process.
Fall 2012: The food policy team developed a step-by-step guide, similar to the own prepared for school food service directors, but this one for farmers interested in participating in Farm to School programs. The guide addresses and clarifies relevant legal issues and regulations to help farmers sell their crops while being confident they are following state and federal laws. The guide also provides information for farmers hoping to sell to other institutions, like hospitals, colleges, prison, etc. In developing the guide, students researched regulations, conducted phone interviews with farmers, and communicated with schools and other stakeholders in Mississippi.
Spring 2013: This spring, the food policy team analyzed the Emerging Crops Fund in Mississippi, which will include researching legislative history and speaking to growers. Additionally, to get a sense of how such funds work elsewhere, the team examined Agricultural Revolving Loan Funds in other states, cities, and countries. Based on the information gathered, the team made recommendations as to how the Mississippi legislature should either amend the existing Emerging Crops Fund or create a new fund more like those in other states, and address any other ways to help support small and new growers and specialty crop production in Mississippi.
Fall 2013: In response to a request from The Mississippi Food Policy Council’s Farm to Institution Committee, the food policy team prepared a policy brief recommending ways to promote local purchasing by state agencies, colleges, and institutions. Currently, Mississippi does not have a local procurement law that requires or encourages state entities to purchase in-state agricultural and food products. The brief includes an overview of farm to institution policies across the U.S., outlines the benefits of a state-level local procurement preference law, and provides model legislative language.
Spring 2014: The food policy team will be helping the Food Advisory Council for Memphis and Shelby County develop an ordinance to encourage (or require) corner stores in Memphis, TN to carry a minimum amount of healthy food e.g., fresh produce. Healthy corner store policies have been piloted in cities around the country where communities living in “food deserts” lack access to affordable, nutritious foods. Student work will be focused on researching (1) the feasibility of such an ordinance in Memphis, (2) whether similar ordinances have been successful elsewhere, and (3) best practices for implementing this type of local law. Much of this research will be in the form of phone interviews with advocates and policymakers across the country who have attempted to implement this policy successfully.
Completed documents including the legal guide, legislative recommendations, and food assistance program recommendations are available on the Delta Directions website.