In September, the Clarion Ledger published a two-part series regarding food desert in the Mississippi Delta and introduced a puzzling paradox: Citizens of the Delta, one of the world’s vastest, most fertile lands, struggle with food scarcity and its many dire consequences.
Additionally, they struggle with food insecurity, a phenomenon the USDA defines as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.
Former Tchula mayor Eddie Carthan, one of many subjects contributing to the article, attributed both the paradox and issues with food insecurity to widespread poverty in the area.
“You used to walk by the orchards and smell the peaches,” Carthan was quoted as saying in the article. “Now, you can go into a grocery store, and it looks like an apple, it looks like a pear, but it doesn’t taste like it. It’s like that all over the country; it’s just worse in poor areas. We just happen to be in one of the poorest areas in the state, if not the country.”
Why exactly has food insecurity in this region become so prevalent?
John Coleman, farm manager of Alcorn State University’s Mound Bayou research station, works in close association with United Healthcare in order to provide food to low-income communities. He agreed that poverty is chiefly to blame for food insecurity in the region, but he said access to food also contributes.
“We don’t have enough fresh food markets,” Coleman said. “We have a lot of processed food, but not enough food markets.”
Coleman attributed part of the problem to aerial spraying of pesticides and insecticides.
“We have so much aerial spraying that a lot of our food ends up contaminated by chemicals,” Coleman said.
Coleman proposed growing community gardens in order to combat these issues and eventually eradicate food insecurity.
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “Consumer choices about food spending and diet are likely to be influenced by the accessibility and affordability of food retailers— travel time to shopping, availability of healthy foods and food prices.”
Dorothy Grady-Scarborough, co-founder of Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture, is actively involved in farm-to-table food programs and believes further research and programs alike are the answer to increasing access and eradicating food insecurity in the Delta.
But research shows problems of food scarcity are not confined to one region. They extend far beyond the Delta, and there are many other factors involved.
In examining the problem in the Delta, the Clarion Ledger found that food insecurity is most strongly linked to rates of poverty, as Carthan suggested.
According to 2011-2015 census data, Mississippi has a 22.5% poverty rate, the highest in the nation, and according to data collected over three years by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, there is an 18.7 percent prevalence rate of food insecurity in the state of Mississippi— the highest in the nation.
In comparison, 27.8% of individuals in Forrest County live below the poverty level, and Forrest County has a 22.7% rate of food insecurity. With a population of about 76,300 people, that’s roughly 17,290 individuals who are food insecure. To make matters worse, most food banks in Hattiesburg are open only during very specific times of the year. For example, One Way International Ministries operates only on Nov. 4 and Nov. 11.
While poverty is the greatest indicator of food insecurity, there are certainly other factors involved. These can be hard to pinpoint because of the nature of food insecurity studies, which often overlook some groups of people such as individuals who are homeless or living in marginal housing (housing that is generally unfit for habitation).
“Because the causes of food insecurity among these groups may differ from those of the general population… including them and similar households in separate surveys may be worthwhile,” Craig Gundersen and James P. Ziliak, suggested in their research report entitled, “Childhood Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options.”
“Understanding the appropriate policy responses will be especially important [for] overlooked groups [who] are likely to have substantially higher food insecurity rates than those of the general population,” they wrote. “Moreover, understanding food insecurity and its causes among hard-to-reach groups would give us a better, less-biased picture of food insecurity in the population as a whole.”