WEBB, Miss.—The rural and sparsely populated Tallahatchie County is home to around 14,000 residents and contains five cities: Charleston, Sumner, Tutwiler, Glendora and Webb. For a long time, Supervalu in Charleston was the only grocery store in the county. Depending on where someone lived, they would need to drive at least 15 miles for fresh fruits, vegetables or a pack of meat. A handful of Dollar Generals also pepper the area, but the community is essentially food insecure.
“Most people there would generally have to have transportation in order to get somewhere; there is no public transportation,” Marquitrice Mangham, a Webb native, told the Mississippi Free Press. “It also has more than 60% low-income households, so you have a really high SNAP or EBT participation rate.”
“A lot of households and individuals plan their trip,” she continued. “They (get) groceries around the first when they get their benefits or whenever they get their SNAP benefits. That’s primarily the time that they’re going to get everything they need for a substantial part of the month.”
Mangham, a third-generation farmer, is an urban planner by trade and the founder of In Her Shoes, Inc.. One of the nonprofit’s focuses is providing resources to minority, low-income and homeless populations.
“Being that I’m from that area, I’m very familiar with the needs of the people,” the nonprofit founder said. “Our organization started to do work in the community, and we first started out with the housing program. But we quickly began to get chatter from the residents in the community that (they) need a grocery store.”
In January 2021, the organization acquired a building in Webb and began working with USDA and other entities to look for resources to bring another grocery store to the area. COVID complications pushed back the timeline for the project, but a year later, on Oct. 14, 2022, Farmacy Marketplace opened its doors.
Mangham said the store has gotten plenty of support from the local community, but not as much from state officials. Locals are not only excited about the store providing food for the community, but they are also excited for how the store can help spur economic development.
“We support other local businesses,” she said. “We support local farmers, which in turn helps the community and the economy of our community overall.”
Locally Grown Food
Mangham said the organization faced a few challenges in getting the grocery store erected. It was difficult finding contractors and equipment in a rural area, so they ended up going outside the region for resources. They also had issues finding a distributor or wholesale company to supply the grocery store.
“A lot of bigger distributors require a certain amount of sales or purchases per week,” she explained. “Being a smaller community grocery store, we weren’t eligible to partner with them. Supervalu or Unify, which is the parent company, worked with us, and we were able to get a contract with them to supply us with everything we needed for the grocery store.”
They are still overcoming the infrastructure issues that come with being in a rural area such as electrical problems and slow internet due to lack of broadband. Despite these challenges, the store’s main goal is to serve the community and meet their needs.
While helping low-income and minority communities through In Her Shoes, Inc., Mangham found that many in these groups had poor eating habits, consuming high amounts of processed foods. In an effort to shift them toward more healthy eating habits, the organization began teaching people how to grow their own food and make simple dishes that incorporate more vegetables and other healthy ingredients.
“I wanted to teach them how to grow food, not just eat, but they could (also) sell the additional food for income, which would help with their financial situation,” Mangham said.
The program expanded to her hometown, which was experiencing the same issues of food insecurity and health issues. The organization worked with USDA to receive a grant to bring better access to healthier foods to the community. They partnered with local farmers to help them reach markers and areas where there was little food, which helped inspire the name Farmacy Marketplace.
“We do work with our training program. It reaches out to farmers in the community, and we contract with them to bring their food, their vegetables and meat into our store,” Mangham explained. “So we’re helping to build a market for them as well as helping to increase access to locally grown food in our community.”
The store also has a partnership with Mid-State Opportunity, Inc., which provides job-training and workforce-development opportunities to individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not otherwise employed or in school.
“They take training classes through the workforce-development program, and then we provide on-the-job training through our grocery store,” Mangham said. “They have a workforce-development grant to provide that service, and we’re happy to be able to assist with that.”
‘A Blessing for All of Us’
Dorothy Chestnut, a resident of Webb, would travel 36 miles, which is a 40-minute drive for her, outside the county to Greenwood to get groceries before Farmacy Marketplace opened. She is very excited to have a grocery store closer.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables, water, everything we need and get at the other store, we (can) get it here,” Chestnut told the Mississippi Free Press.
James Croft, a retired teacher who taught in the Webb School District for 32 years, learned of the new store from Mangham, his former student. To help get the grocery store on its feet, he volunteered to work at Farmacy Marketplace, he told the Mississippi Free Press.
“Well, she’s not quite finished with it, but yeah, it’s excellent,” Croft said of the store. “It’s a blessing for them (the community). A blessing for all of us, really.”
Irene Sanders, Mangham’s mother, runs the store in her daughter’s stead. Sanders said she cannot remember the last time the town had a grocery store, but it has been years ago. In the future, she said her daughter plans to have growers raise organic vegetables and fruit to sell in the store. Growers is a term used for people who primarily grow fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants.
“Let us know what you want us to have for you, ’cause we’re here to accommodate,” Sanders said. “We’re gonna try to provide as much as we can for them. That’s what we’re here for.”
Mangham said the support the community has shown in this first month has blown her off her feet. People come into the store, traveling from other small rural towns to shop because they are without a grocery store as well. She had a special interaction with a 12-year-old, who asked if he could work in her grocery store.
“Well, maybe not right now because you’re only 12,” Mangham recalled telling the boy.
“What about when I’m 15?” he asked.
“Well, when you’re 15, maybe you can bag groceries and help people to their cars,” the store owner replied.
“In 10 years, I see you having grocery stores all over the place,” he told her.
“Well, if I do in 10 years, I would love for you to come and help me manage them,” Mangham finished.
The boy’s comments put a picture in her mind of Farmacy Marketplace being a pilot project to bring neighborhood grocery stores to other areas that have the same characteristics and issues that Webb experiences. For instance, Noxubee County in East Mississippi has one expensive grocery store in the entire county. Even South Jackson in the capital-city metro has perpetual news-desert challenges with accessing affordable, fresh food.
This widespread problem, often in Mississippi Black communities, is a problem, something Mangham would like to work toward if her first store meets with enough success.
“I would love for this to be the beginning of a (rapidly expanding series) of community grocery stores popping up in low-access areas,” Mangham said.