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As cane is not at its most productive in temperate climes—it needs tropical, rain-drenched fields to flourish—the first European market was built on a trickle of Muslim trade, and the sugar that reached the West was consumed only by the nobility, so rare it was classified as a spice.But with the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s, trade with the East became more difficult.

Many of the field hands were prisoners of war, eastern Europeans captured when Muslim and Christian armies clashed.

The student body is 91 percent African American, 7 percent white, “and three Latinos”—the remaining 2 percent. Take, for example, Nicholas Scurlock, who had recently begun his first year at Oakhurst Middle School.

“These kids eat what they’re given, and too often it’s the sweetest, cheapest foods: cakes, creams, candy. Nick, just tall enough to ride the coaster at the bigger amusement parks, had been 135 pounds going into fifth grade.

High rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease: the legacy, some experts say, of sugar, a crop that brought the ancestors of most Clarksdale residents to this hemisphere in chains.

“We knew we had to do something,” Kirkpatrick principal Suz Anne Walton told me.