Wearing her signature pearl necklace, pink cowboy hat, and pink cowboy boots, Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott wants everyone to know, “I am a woman farmer. I want all women to know they can be successful farmers, too.”
After leaving the New York investment banking world after 9/11, Cindy returned to her home state of Mississippi and bought land on the rural edge of Hind’s County. There, according to Data USA, 21.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. The largest demographic is females 25 – 34, followed by females 18 – 24 and then females 6 – 11.
Cindy believed if she could provide women and their children access to farming, however small, perhaps the community could begin to break the spiraling cycle of poverty and reduce debilitating diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and the escalating mental health crisis.
On a chilly November morning, we walked toward one of her six high tunnels. “Food deserts are everywhere — in rural regions, urban areas, small towns,” Cindy told me. “For poor folks and people of color, food deserts have been a way of life for a very long time. I want to change that mentality and reality.”
The first tunnel was bursting with thick five-foot-tall Jamaican hibiscus sorrel. Brought to the farm by Farmer Danny and his wife Wendy from his Caribbean homeland, this powerhouse antioxidant has a tangy, sweet and sour flavor. It’s loaded with vitamin C and magnesium, essential for heart health.
Cindy plucked a crimson fruit, peeled it and handed it to me to taste. She looked at me. “What do you think? The kids think it tastes like a Jolly Rancher.” As I bit into the plump fruit Cindy added, “We are making it into tea and jam. We want people to know that there are tasty alternatives to fast food and candy bars at gas stations.”
Stepping out of the tunnel she shifted back to the reality many poor rural families face. “If folks in food deserts are lucky, they might get to a real grocery store once a month,” she said.
“They’ll buy canned food, noodles, and rice. You know, those boxes of noodles that are 10 for a dollar. Out in the country, where there’s no buses, you’ll see ‘em carry a 50-pound bag of rice. It’s all about volume, volume to fill their kids’ stomachs.”
Inside the second tunnel, she extended her arm toward a table filled with planted containers, or as Cindy calls them, “Farms in a Box for Farmless Folks,” all ready to go to the Farmer’s Market the next day. Each was planted with different selections of greens and vegetables including squash, lettuce, cilantro, carrots, and peppers, accompanied by her signature labeled pink plastic stakes.
Peering into each box and reading the tags, she reflected back to when the idea came to her. “In 2011, I started wondering how to provide healthy foods to people who don’t have land,” she said.
“Maybe they just have a stoop, or a window shelf, because they don’t have a backyard. Or maybe they don’t have tools or the ability to dig up someone else’s yard. How can we get people fresh food every day without worrying about having land, or tools or equipment? Then it came to me. What if I put a farm in a box?”
Dr. Lashanda Brumfield, a public health professor, believes these Farms in a Box not only provide healthy food choices but also build the social dynamics of families. “Back in the day, it took the family to work the farm, it gave the family something to build on,” she said.
“Having families grow things even on a small scale allows opportunities to make connections to health, land and ancestry, and passes worth and healing down from generation to generation, where it was dropped along the way.”
In 2020, when Covid shut down Mississippi, Farms in a Box became even more important. One woman started preparing meals for her aging parents and noticed health changes. Within a matter of months, medications were reduced, and physician visits decreased. Another family started using them as an active learning project. The whole family started eating more vegetables. Could something so simple make such a substantial change?
Dr. Brumfield believes it can. “If we, as a community, can take back our health through healthy foods with easy access, we could improve our health quicker than with doctors,” she said.
At the farmer’s market, Cindy’s booths were filled with carrots, squash, two-foot-long mustard greens, peppers, sorrel tea, and, of course, Farms in a Box. From the time the market opened to closing time women lined up to talk to Cindy about the vegetables, the tea, and the boxes. Her high heels may have been left back on Wall Street, but she and her pearls are strutting tall to bring the wealth of health back to her community.
Carolyn Campbell is a former leadership and business coach, who left city life four years ago to better understand the rural/urban divide. She purposely lives on the average income of the rural women in a region she’s currently exploring to experience first-hand the challenges they face. Her writing addresses these issues, spotlighting local changemakers and activists. In addition to regional and national publications, her work has been featured on podcasts and radio throughout the country.