by Sophie McNeil Wolf

Health and wellness has always been on DJ Baker’s mind. Growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma, he declared he was going to be a cardiologist at the age of six.

By seventh grade, nutrition had also taken up importance.  “I was that one kid that was good at math and my dad always had these kinesiology and physiology books. In the third grade I would go through the anatomy book. I was fascinated by these — the structure and inner workings of the body.”

Baker points to Dean Ornish’s  The Spectrum as his true spark of inspiration. Since then, his curiosity has grown to include agriculture, horticulture and public health.

Enter FoodCorps, a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food by placing those leaders in limited-resource communities for a year of public service (1,700 hours).

Partnering with National Center for Appropriate Technology — Gulf South States (NCAT), ten Mississippi FoodCorps workers are assigned to local elementary and middle schools around the state.

Baker, now 21, was studying nutrition, dietetics and food management in addition to public health at University of Central Oklahoma when he signed up for FoodCorps. Through the program, Baker spent the last school year in Bolivar County, specifically in the town of Shelby with Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (MEGA).

With only two weeks left to go in the Mississippi Delta, Baker received a call from FoodCorps fellow service member Lauren Rhoades, asking if he would be willing to stay another year, this time in Jackson at Midtown’s Brown Elementary. After giving it some thought, he agreed.

In his first interview they asked him what he thought of going to Mississippi. “Mississippi? Huh.” Baker said.  “I didn’t really know what to think of Mississippi. I knew there would be some country folk there, but it’s a different kind of ‘country’ from Oklahoma.”

But Mississippi has had her way with Baker.

“I like Jackson because it’s very different, diverse,” he said, thinking about the few months since he has landed here. Coffee shops have been favorites of Baker’s, from Cups and Sneaky Beans in Fondren to Deep South Pops in Belhaven to the Urban Sip downtown.

What he found right away was that the stereotypes of slow Southern life weren’t exactly what he thought. “Living in Fondren, Rainbow Co-op astonished me. Rainbow was so ahead of its time. If you think about Mississippi, you are in the South, which tends to be slower to new ideas. To have this for decades — it was so ahead of its time.”

During his days in the garden at Brown Elementary, Baker works to be a positive force, not only through the work of growing crops, but also helping his students grow mentally and emotionally.

“A whole bin of sprouts recently popped up in the composting pile,” Baker said. “It was the perfect timing. I told myself, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to tell my students to look at the sprouts.’ I told them to be themselves, find their dreams. I showed them the bin and told them that they were my little sprouts,” he says with a laugh.

“I told them, ‘Look at these sprouts, right now they look all the same.’ I knew from experience that these different vegetable leaves looked similar at first, but changed as they matured… We talked about how as we grow, we all grow in different ways and bear different fruit.”

For Baker, working with his students goes beyond food, just like the sprouts.  “I have opportunities to help them grow in different ways. I try to take that time so they can learn.”

What does Mississippi mean to Baker now? “Mississippi has so much to offer. Oprah, Elvis, the Mannings (he says with a smile) — they all came out of Mississippi. Memphis would be nothing without the (Mississippi) Delta. I wish more people knew about it. It’s such a hidden secret.”

Additional Image: FoodCorps Mississippi