MSU professor helps feed a community

MSU professor helps feed a community

One in nine people on earth do not have enough to eat; in America it's one in seven; and in Mississippi, one in four.

By: Vanessa Beeson

At Mississippi State University, global food security is a major research priority, and a large part of that focus means minding the gap right here. Many at Mississippi State are doing just that, including Christine Coker, an associate research and extension professor.

Along with her role at MSU and volunteer activities, Coker clearly does her part to feed the community. Almost 700,000 Mississippians are food insecure. Nearly 20 percent of residents in Harrison County, where Coker concentrates her efforts, are considered food insecure ? that is almost 40,000 mouths to feed.

In addition to teaching schools, students and educators about horticulture and introducing children to farming as horticultural specialist at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, Coker also works closely with the Harrison County Soil and Water Conservation District, an agency that offers mini-grants for school and community gardens. So far, she has participated in the start-up of more than 30 gardens.

The gardens are one component of Coker's research in the university's Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station to evaluate availability of local foods for schools and communities.

Coker also conducts vegetable variety trials research and evaluation of vegetable production practices, such as high tunnels.

"The research data generated from vegetable variety trials and production practices is disseminated to producers, large and small, to help them extend the growing season and increase profits," she said.

Coker also is the president of Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit community soup kitchen that has served Harrison County for more than 30 years. She said her involvement with the organization really brings her career as a horticulturist full circle.

"We live in an agricultural state and there is so much abundance, yet not everyone has access," she said.

Coker's position is voluntary, and the organization has a small fulltime staff. Cynthia Mangum currently serves as interim executive director.

"The kitchen serves breakfast and lunch five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, totaling close to 6,000 meals per month," Mangum explained. "We also supply the food for a church delivery of homebound meals, called Martha's Meals, and provide food for emergency shelters during cold and inclement weather, taking turns with another organization."

Mangum spoke to Coker's involvement in the organization.

"She's been our president for three years," Mangum said. "Christine helps drive marketing efforts, finds connections in the community and helps our dollars go farther. She's done a lot for our organization."

Improving food systems is a priority and point of pride for Coker. Most recently, she became an MSU representative on a new committee organized by the Southern Rural Development Center. Representatives from 13 southern land-grant universities will discuss local food systems and evaluate food production from a whole systems approach; assessing areas like production, farm-to-school and even food waste management.

"I pursued this research to feed people, and I participate in the soup kitchen to feed people," Coker said. "I get to see, firsthand, the journey from production to the plate."

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