The blueberry is now officially the state fruit of Mississippi — and 4th graders are responsible for making it happen.
The grassroots effort to name the blueberry as Mississippi's state fruit began last fall in Lisa Parenteau's two 4th grade classrooms at Mannsdale Upper Elementary School in Madison, Mississippi.
After the students in one of her classes read a Scholastic News article about how elementary students in Kansas successfully lobbied their legislators for the Sandhill plum to be named their state fruit, one student in Parenteau's class wanted to know if Mississippi had a state fruit. Parenteau, an educator for 13 years, seized the teaching and learning opportunity.
The teacher and students conducted research and discovered that, in fact, Mississippi did not have an official fruit.
Shortly after that class, the students went to recess, where the playground conversation centered on what Mississippi's fruit should be. Students polled each other about their favorite fruits with apples, watermelon and strawberries getting the most endorsements. One student suggested that they propose an official state fruit.
The momentum escalated quickly, Parenteau said. "They just rolled with it, and they got so excited."
Although Parenteau said that, at the time, she didn't exactly know how to help her students lobby state legislators, she did ensure the students' efforts were based on facts using credible sources. The students — there are two classes of 19 students each — and Parenteau turned to Mississippi State University's extension services to better understand which fruits best relate to the state's historical, economic and cultural characteristics.
The students settled on the blueberry after learning it is the most grown fruit in the state. This choice appealed to Parenteau and the children because of its importance in the state's agriculture, and because it's a fruit anyone can grow in their backyard, she said.
With the decision made for what fruit to advocate for, Project Blueberry was created.
From classroom to the capital
During one class, with her students watching, Parenteau emailed the area's legislative representative, Jill Ford, to see if she'd be interested in sponsoring the student's proposal. Parenteau said Ford swiftly agreed and also visited the school to explain to all of the school's 4th graders the steps that a bill takes to become law.
At Ford's suggestion, the students crafted hand-written advocacy letters to lawmakers. Parenteau said it was an opportunity to teach her students about formal and practical persuasive letter writing. The students also drew campaign signs. Although everyone remained hopeful for the legislation's approval, Parenteau prepared her students for potential disappointment, sharing with them that only a small fraction of legislation actually becomes law.
"That's what drove me: These kids are dreaming big. I can't squash their dream."
Fourth-grade teacher at Mannsdale Upper Elementary School
In February, the four-sentence bill — HB 1027 — passed on a 110-1 vote.
Earlier this month, on a pre-scheduled field trip to the state capital in Jackson, the students visited the meeting rooms where lawmakers debate bills and take votes. Their visit was a day after the Senate approved the bill in a 52-0 vote.
Several students were back at the capital Monday — during their spring break — to witness Gov. Tate Reeves sign the legislation into law. As he did, he explained to the students gathered around the desk that he not only had to put his signature on the bill for it to become law but also had to write the date and time.
"I’m very proud of their efforts leading the way on this issue and rallying the legislature to their cause," Reeve said in a statement. The law becomes effective July 1. There is no cost to the legislation.
The blueberry is now the official state fruit of Mississippi.— Governor Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) March 13, 2023
This is all thanks to the initiative of these Mannsdale Upper Elementary School students. They led the way on this issue and rallied the legislature to their cause.
I was happy to sign this legislation into law. ???? pic.twitter.com/B6yapfc6Nz
This real-world social studies lesson was nothing that Parenteau had planned for this school year, and she gives the students full credit for advocating for the cause.
"That's what drove me: These kids are dreaming big. I can't squash their dream," Parenteau said. "I just let them guide me. Everybody tells me I did such a good job, but I didn't. The kids did it. I just was there for the ride.”