'Ready When You Are': Aramark, Minority Farmers, and Real Food in Mississippi

May 1, 2013
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This post is from Bonnie May Maye, Southeast Regional Field Organizer. This is the third in a series of blog posts from the Southeast Aramark Road Trip. 

“We’re ready to sell whenever students are ready,” said Mississippi farmer Ben Burkett. 

Towards the end of our Southeast Aramark Road Trip, we stopped by Petal, Mississippi to visit Ben Burkett and Joe Barnes, two farmers with the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative – a cooperative of African-American farmers who started pooling their resources together in 1981 so they could get better prices for their produce.

The Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative, along with the Pointe Coupee Minority Farmers Cooperative in Bachelor, LA, are two cooperatives of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. They both sell their produce at Southeastern Louisiana University twice a semester, during a student-organized farmers market.

Through organizing the farmers market, students built a relationship with these farmers and asked Aramark to buy produce from them.

Aramark said no, claiming that they already got enough local produce from one of their distributors. 

They also refused to let students run the Real Food Calculator to learn about the food that the school was purchasing.

Mr. Burkett is in his sixties and wears overalls.  He speaks thoughtfully and frequently looks into the distance, partly to gather his thoughts and partly to see what is happening on his farm and in the neighborhood.  Mr. Barnes is younger and apparently still dressed for church. His conversation moves between jokes, anecdotes and cutting commentary about the difficulties facing small farmers.  

During our visit, they showed us around Mr. Burkett’s farm.  We also spent some time sitting and chatting in the main processing and packaging facility.  We talked about difficulties small farmers were facing today -- for example, Mr. Burkett said that they didn’t have any younger farmers coming in to take over farming in southern Mississippi. Part of that problem is that farming is a lot of hard work, with a lot of up-front costs and very little chance of making profit. “To be a farmer, you have to have a lot of faith,” said Ben Burkett.

Since these farms are organized in a cooperative with other small farms, they have a lot of produce to sell collectively, including collard greens, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, snap peas, green onions, bell peppers, squash, watermelon, and more – enough to feed a mid-sized university like Southeastern Louisiana University.

It took years for the cooperative to start breaking even, and now, even though they are known as a successful example of a farmer’s cooperative, their profit margins are narrow. They face a number of barriers in finding markets for their produce, and one of the biggest is liability insurance. Their $2 million of liability insurance coverage is still below the $5 million threshold that they would need to sell to institutional markets-- a requirement, Mr. Burkett mentioned, which has increased dramatically over the past several years.

When the cooperative looks for buyers, they don’t always have good options.  Big buyers like Walmart set the prices – not the farmers-- and frequently they set them very low. “You would think the farmer would set the price. No, they tell us what they’ll pay!” exclaimed Mr. Barnes. 

Next, buyers dictate what varieties of produce farmers grow, regardless of whether they are the varieties that are best adapted to the area.  Often the varieties that big buyers ask for are only sold by big seed companies like Monsanto.  Sometimes they are genetically-modified and require lots of chemicals.  Mr. Burkett showed us the seeds for some genetically-modified squash that have exceptional yields, but are also bred so that they only fruit for one season, meaning that farmers are unable to save seeds as they always used to do and are consistently dependent on the seed company.

At Southeastern Louisiana University, students organized a farmers market on their campus to help create a market for these farmers who were involved in their local community and who were taking care of the land by not using harsh chemicals on their vegetables.

During some of the university’s farmers markets, both cooperatives make more money than they would at a farmers market in New Orleans. However, selling to the cafeteria would be a more reliable market for these farmers and, unfortunately, they are still unable to sell their produce to Aramark. 

The cooperative is near a number of universities, many of which have Agriculture departments.  Mr. Burkett even collaborates with several of them on academic research. And students at a number of these schools would love to see the Indian Springs produce in their dining halls.  But many of these schools also have Aramark as their food service provider.  And until Aramark adapts their policies to make it easier for small, local farmers to sell to colleges and universities, the cooperative will miss out on a huge institutional market and students will miss out on Mr. Burkett’s delicious collard greens and watermelons.

When we told Mr. Burkett and Mr. Barnes about the goal of Real Food Challenge – to shift 20% (one billion dollars) of campus dining food budget money to more local, small farmers – their tone changed from anxiety to one of hope. Mr Burkett said, “$1 billion?  That’s a lot of money.  If the students could get our co-op $250,000 of that, we would be set!”