Latoya Chamberlain stood wearing a pair of plastic serving gloves and a mask. The sun reflected off the yellow Noxubee County school bus parked behind her, which was filled with coolers of food, milk and juice. As cars filed into the parking lot in March 2020, the staff plastered on their best smiles and walked bags of prepackaged meals and folders of work packets for students to the cars.
The satellite meal station was a striking paradox to the abandoned grocery store next to them in the parking lot in Shuqualak, Miss., in east central Mississippi near the Alabama border.
Attendance for food pickups was low that day so the staff boarded the bus and drove into Noxubee County communities passing out meals. They alerted the students stuck at home due to the then-new virus COVID-19 that they would be back at the old T and G grocery store parking lot at the same time the next week, passing out more food.
It is a day that Chamberlain remembers distinctly.
Chamberlain, a kindergarten teacher in the Noxubee County School District—the Macon-based school that now serves the entire county due to school closings and white flight to private academies—was assigned to assist with meal distribution in her hometown of Shuqualak during the initial school closure due to COVID. She and other staff handed out meals despite the fears and unknowns in the early months of the pandemic.
“It was very important because we never know what is going on in a student’s home,” Chamberlain said. “The meals that were provided provided those children who would typically eat two meals at school, the opportunity to have food, meals and drink.”
Food Insecurity: A Systemic Problem
As the coronavirus spread across the country in early 2020, the United States fell into an economic recession resulting from job loss and business closure. Feeding America reports that food-insecurity rates were at the lowest overall point before the pandemic that had ever been measured, even if many communities still suffered from it and relied on school breakfasts and lunches as the main meals children living in poverty had daily.
However, the pandemic changed that relative success as poverty and unemployment increased, especially in Black communities with historic inequities already stretching thin pocketbooks. That was even more true for households led by Black women, the Mississippi group COVID-19 hit the hardest in the early months of 2020. For Noxubee County, the pandemic only worsened issues for families already dealing with food insecurity.
“You hope that all of your students are going home to a hot meal every day, but that is just not the case.” Chamberlain said.
Food insecurity is about a deeper problem than even occasional hunger in between paychecks. The nonprofit Feeding America describes food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 38.3 million people lived in food-insecure households in 2020. That includes 6.1 million children who lived in homes in which children, along with adults, were food insecure.
Feeding America reports that in Mississippi in 2019, 550,370 people are facing hunger—and of them 155,560 are children. That translates to one in five Mississippians. The group found Noxubee County to have a 20.8% insecurity rate. 70% of those residents were under the designated SNAP threshold of 130% poverty.
Most of Noxubee County, which is 72% Black, is a food desert, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a rural area without a grocery store within a 10-mile radius. In fact, Noxubee County has only one full grocery store, which is in the county seat of Macon, nine miles north of Shuqualak.
Owned by a local white family, Black Noxubee residents often complain that they must drive to another county to get reasonable food prices, which of course is reliant on good transportation, which isn’t always available to people living in poverty.
Food deserts affect two groups in particular: low-income residents and residents of rural communities. The majority of Noxubee County residents are both.
‘Supermarket Redlining’: Not Illegal
Due to long-embedded systemic disparities, the solutions to food insecurity must contain a long-term social, economic, and political response at the local, state and national level, Professor Angela Odoms-Young warns. Latino, Black and Native Americans experience food insecurity in greater proportion due to discrimination and racial discrimination, she warns. These are also common underlying factors for those living in poverty.
In her 2018 report “Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities,” Odoms-Young stated that during the 20 years that the USDA has monitored food-insecurity levels, the gap in the prevalence of food security between Black and white people has continued to trend the same. That was true even when the levels of food security have risen or declined.
The report showed that, from 2001 to 2016, food-insecurity rates of Black and Hispanic families were consistently higher than those of white households.
In her documentary, “Food Apartheid,” Dr. Wilma Clopton-Mosley, a filmmaker in Jackson, explores the systemic issues that are the root cause of food deserts. Mosley made a telling discovery when overlapping historic Mississippi plantation maps, areas of redlining and current communities.
“The same areas where there were plantations are the same areas where there was redlining, which means that African Americans were not allowed access to financial support for homes,” Clopton-Mosley told this reporter about her film. “Those are the same areas where you find lack of access to grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables or good meats and quality foods. The maps are almost identical.”
|Wilma Clopton produced the 2021 documentary “Food Apartheid.” In the film she revealed her discovery after overlapping Mississippi plantations and redlining maps. Many of those same communities are now food deserts.
It is a phenomenon often called “supermarket redlining.” The term refers to areas where large supermarket chains opt to not locate stores in inner-cities and low-income neighborhoods, often leaving residents to overspend at convenience stores without healthy-food options. Occurrences of this type of redlining can be traced back to the 1960s; however, unlike its housing equivalent, supermarket redlining is not illegal.
In addition to this intentional avoidance of Black areas with high poverty rates, rural areas often lack a population base to support grocery stores that offer a variety of healthy affordable food options. Therefore, residents of these areas experience higher prices, lower selection and compromised quality in smaller grocery or convenience stores.
In Shuqualak, this journalist’s hometown, locals only have expensive and limited convenience-story food options available without driving nine miles north to the state’s lone grocer in Macon, or further into another county. That requires working transportation.
Locally owned Tem’s Food Market in Macon, the county seat, is the only major grocery store in the now-three-town county. The grocery store in Shuqualak closed years ago. Without transportation, many of those residents are unable to travel to cities with more options for shopping. For many, their limited income discourages them from using some of the local transportation companies that have a fee.
Those looking for larger grocery stores with discount prices have to travel an average of 30 minutes to Louisville, Columbus, Starkville or Meridian in adjoining counties to shop.
“In Shuqualak, we don’t have a grocery store, period,” local Family Nurse Practitioner Dorthy Bester told the Mississippi Free Press. “If you don’t have a car, you are left with Dollar General or the convenience stores where they have pizza wings and all the high-sodium stuff.”
Latoya Chamberlain, who also lives in Shuqualak, travels 41 miles each way to Columbus in Lowndes County to do most of her grocery shopping because she finds it more affordable.
“If I’m missing something, I will go to Tem’s (in Macon), but I always try to do my shopping at Kroger or Walmart because I always find better deals, and the prices are better in my opinion,” she said. “I feel like the prices (at Tem’s) are high, and I felt like they were extremely high when COVID hit.”
Both Chamberlain and Bester noted that there is no place to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in Shuqualak. In 2019, Feeding America reported that nearly 21% of residents of Noxubee County were considered food-insecure or without consistent access to healthy food. This is considerably higher than the state average of 15.3% and the U.S. average of 10.5%. The nonprofit projected that this number would increase to 33.8% in 2021.
Noxubee County supermarket redlining also tracks with Dr. Clopton’s findings about former plantations becoming food-insecure deserts for mostly Black residents. In the 19th century, wealthy planters founded and developed Noxubee County with many hundreds of enslaved Black laborers working the fertile land for cotton and other crops.
Despite the concentration of wealth in white Noxubee County families, the county has never been majority-white and has a long history of race violence to prevent economic advancement, block Black people from voting, and limit and segregate Black families out of quality schooling.
A local segregation academy and Mennonite schools drew resources out of the now nearly all-Black public-school system, starting in 1970, for decades since the U.S. Supreme Court forced public schools to segregate.
All of these factors have contributed to the continuation of Noxubee County’s poverty cycle and food insecurity. The Noxubee County School District has 46.6% of students who come from low-income homes and therefore are eligible to receive free or reduced meals. It also has a 31.3% child food-insecurity rate.
With little help coming from outside, local Noxubee County residents and educators are seeking solutions they can do themselves.
Students Need Breakfast, Lunch
Several federal programs exist to combat food insecurity, including the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP. The program, established under the National School Lunch Act, which President Harry Truman signed in 1946, provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
Then, the 1966 Child Nutrition Law expanded the program to include the National School Breakfast program, funding for meals and eligibility requirements. Later, the Summer Food Service program was added. Students are determined eligible through participation in federally funded programs or based on household income and size.
Millions of children depend on these meals daily to not go hungry.
Ensuring that their students had access to food during the pandemic became a central focus to Noxubee County School District administrators during the school closure.
“Because of the rural area, the two meals that the kids would get at school would (often) be the only two meals that they would get outside of snacks that they may have had at home,” said Travonder Dixon-McCloud in a January 2021 interview. “We had to figure out how we were going to feed them.”
Families could pick up a hot meal for that day, as well as sandwiches, fruit and sides for the other days. The district placed satellite sites in areas of the county and passed out the prepackaged meals to any children who came. This still presented a problem for some students who could not get to the satellite sites.
“Some of the kids didn’t have transportation to get to the T and G grocery store (parking lot) …,” Chamberlain said. “That’s why we went out into the community.”
The lack of food access, which COVID-19 highlighted and heightened, prompted several school officials to ponder solutions. When the Noxubee County School District received its Cares Act funding from the federal government, Principal Aiesha Brooks posed the idea of the school updating its current greenhouse.
“We could teach so many skills from it,” Brooks said in a June 2021 interview. “We could grow our own food and have a small farmer’s market.”
Her plan did not get much traction, but the idea is not far-fetched. Before the pandemic, Rolling Meadows High School in Chicago started an agricultural program. A greenhouse is the centerpiece of the program that began in 2019. As the pandemic increased and financial need and closed schools brought food insecurities to light, Rolling Meadows Principal Eileen Hart determined that the school’s greenhouse could provide a solution to the problem.
Hart and Dave Wietrzak, the school’s head for career and technical education, began conversations in the community to determine the best way to use the greenhouse. They decided to grow items that could be distributed throughout the community.
As the pandemic raged, the Chicago greenhouse provided an initial 200 tomato plants to families to replant. They then continued providing once-a-week school food pickups of fresh grown vegetables.
The 24 foot-by-48-foot greenhouse and agricultural program provide opportunities for Chicago students to explore career pathways in agricultural engineering, food science and more. During normal years, the greenhouse provides career pathway experience in areas such as veterinary science, agricultural engineering and food science.
Feeding Families While Educating Students
For a school like Noxubee High, a school garden or greenhouse could have multiple benefits for the community and students.
Wingfield High School is a secondary school in Jackson, Miss. The inner-city school in South Jackson, once a wealthy white section of the capital city before forced school integration, which now is majority-Black and suffers from food insecurity and limited shopping options as Aliyah Veal reported in the Mississippi Free Press in 2020.
Now, Wingfield is home to an agricultural academy called the Academy of Natural Resource Utilization. Students in the program maintain three gardens on the school property where they grow produce. They not only learn about naturally grown produce, but they also provide a service to the community and learn entrepreneurial skills. The crops are sold at local farmers markets or the students use them to produce products such as salsa or hot sauce. They also grow produce that is used specifically to feed the animals at the Jackson Zoo, a historic facility still located in West Jackson, which has also suffered from white and economic flight and resulting poverty.
Jeff Gibson took over the fledgling Wingfield football team in 2013. The team’s limited funds and deteriorating resources prompted him to contact Cindy Ayers-Elliott, owner of Footprint Farms. Instead of simply making a donation to the team, she presented him with an alternative option. She allowed Gibson, a long-time 4-H volunteer, to rent two acres of her land for $1. His players could join the club and work in the garden using the crops to gain revenue.
“We didn’t have much in the way of weight-room equipment or practice uniforms,” Gibson said in an interview. “Even a great deal of the game equipment that was needed to play was missing or gone.”
Gibson and his 4-H Club, which then included a great deal of the Wingfield football team, worked the land and raised tomatoes and watermelons that they sold at a local farmers market. They were able to raise enough money to not only make the needed equipment purchases, but to feed the team each day.
In 2015, Gibson and the Wingfield principal agreed to move the gardens to the school so that students would have easier access to them. They created three gardens on the campus grounds.
“We eventually ended up with about three quarters of an acre,” Gibson said. “It was a little over 30,000 square feet.”
Attendance at football practice increased tremendously, and Gibson credited it to the added assurance of a nutritious meal after each practice.
“We were actually able to give the football players two turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches everyday along with a banana, multivitamin and chocolate milk,” Gibson said. “That increased practice attendance to 100%. Whatever we had left over they were able to take home. Dr. Ayers also used our crops to make us vegetable soup once a week.”
Gibson began to see a change in his football players’ attitude about their health and nutrition.
“I think it not only affected what they were eating at home, but it affected the way they asked their parents to purchase food,” said Gibson, who grew up on a farm in Wilkinson County in southwest Mississippi. “They became more interested in eating healthier foods or eating fresh and natural foods once they saw how foods are produced and what a good nutritionally balanced diet can do for you.”
Gibson opted to give up his position as head football coach in 2016 to establish Wingfield’s Ag Academy. The gardens also became part of that program. Before COVID, students in the academy sold their crops and products each Friday at the school to staff, parents and community members. Gibson hopes to use the students’ budding interest in gardening and 4-H to bring more gardens to the south Jackson area.
“One of our objectives here is to put a garden in every backyard,” GIbson said. “I want my 4-H Club to do that year or probably next year. We want to put some kind of raised bed (and) our objective is to put at least 40 square feet of garden areas in people’s backyard.”
Of course, using school agriculture programs to help bring healthy food to communities is not without its problems. Gibson said he attempted to have the same success with similar programs at other schools, but much like Brooks in Noxubee County, he did not have the administrative support to make it work.
“I just have always believed that the best way to teach football or academics is through farming. I was the head football coach at Wilkinson County High from 1995 to 1998. I did the same thing. I had them farming,” said Gibson, who became a master gardener through Mississippi State University training.
“When I became a head coach in Greenwood, I had some of them doing a little gardening part-time even though it was never to this extent. And I tried to do the same thing in Heidelberg, (Miss.) but I never got the buy-in from everybody, particularly the administrative side of any of those places with the exception of perhaps Wilkinson County.”
The commitment to such programs must also extend beyond local school leaders. One hundred and one school districts in Mississippi own 16th-section public school-trust land. The land, which is used to raise public-education funds, can be classified for different uses and leased. Gibson believes school districts can use this land to expand agriculture programs.
As director of Jackson Public Schools’ Environmental Learning Center, Gibson hopes to set the standard for programs like his. He is preparing the soil for gardens and the pond for fish.
“This is 640 acres, all (of which) is 16th section land. It belongs to Jackson Public Schools, and it’s just a really great piece of property,” he said of acreage in the capital-city area. “It’s some work, but I believe in the value of the program.”
Gibson believes other districts can use their public-trust land in the same manner. The gardens could then produce enough crops to make a dent in food insecurity, he argues.
Food Issues Become Health Issues
Wingfield’s community garden met a necessary need in its South Jackson community, area of the capital city that went from a thriving middle- and upper-class white haven in the 1960s to an area racked by poverty and decay since desegregation of Wingfield, Forest Hill, and other neighborhood public schools started white flight and disinvestment in the 1970s.
In Mississippi, only 5.5 percent of adults eat enough vegetables, and 9.9 percent eat enough fruit as designated by the USDA. Poverty is a major cause of unhealthy eating.
Improving access to healthy fruits and vegetables and quality food has the potential to positively affect several areas in Noxubee County. High prices for fresh and healthy food options coupled with limited health-care services often results in poor health outcomes. The CDC links poor nutrition to chronic illness, particularly diabetes and cardiac conditions in adults. And those conditions increase health-care costs and hurt economic potential and conditions.
In addition to the psychological effects of living with the fear of not having enough to eat has on children, experts say food insecurity affects their overall health, mood, attention span and cognitive abilities.
The health problems commonly linked to food deserts also tend to be intergenerational. Children of parents with high blood pressure or heart disease often suffer from those ailments themselves. This cycle only exacerbates the health problems in those communities.
Noxubee County’s Dorthy Bester deals with these issues first-hand. A native of Macon, she has worked in the medical field for several years as a social worker and nurse. She now serves as a family nurse practitioner for Macon Primary Care Clinic, which serves much of the county’s population. In her role, she manages chronic disease of pediatric, adults and elderly patients.
‘The overall health of the county is poor. Most people are overweight,” she said. “Over 50 percent have a diagnosis of hypertension and probably 30. Maybe even 50 percent have a diagnosis of diabetes. That makes them at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and increases their risk of being on dialysis.”
Noxubee County is listed as one of the least healthy counties in the state. The 2021 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps report shows that 49.8% of the county’s residents are obese, and 30.5% reported in poor or fair health. Bester tries to educate her patients on healthy diets and portion sizes. However, she finds that patients often say that nutritious food is outside their budget.
“Bad food is cheap. I think a lot of time they go for the cheaper food, and that’s the unhealthy food,” Bester told the Mississippi Free Press. “Because they don’t make a living wage or are living on a fixed income, it limits the healthy food that they are able to get.”
Her pediatric patients are not unaffected, and the school closure starting in 2020 added to the problems.
“I see a lot of obesity with a lot of the younger children. I’ve even had a couple that have had high blood pressure problems already,” Bester said. “When the schools were closed, they had the lunches, but I don’t think a lot of people picked them up. I think with them being at home, they found themselves eating a lot of cheap (easy-to-cook) foods.”
She sees the tremendous long-term benefit in programs like Wingfield’s Academy of Natural Resource Utilization or Rolling Meadows Agricultural programs.
“If they start at the kindergarten level, those students could understand how things grow,” Bester, who has a 4-year old daughter, said. “Then they could have someone come in and show a different way to prepare it.
“If you incorporate that into the home economics class, and they have a project where they have to go home and duplicate that meal, I think that will make a difference.”