“Food desert” is a term used to describe areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited. Rural and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by food deserts, and that’s certainly the case in Mississippi.
Mississippi is the poorest state, with a poverty rate of 20.3%, and 50 out of the 82 counties are considered to be in persistent poverty. But it’s also the hungriest state with 1 in 5 children going hungry.
In Mississippi, 15.3% of households are food insecure. Those rates are much higher in Mississippi’s rural areas than they are in urban areas due to the lack of resources to attain food. Female-headed households are also disproportionately impacted by food deserts.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits help provide some help to individuals experiencing food insecurity. In the state, more than 73% of SNAP benefit recipients have children.
There are different terms that can be used to describe communities who have limited access to healthy and affordable food, and in recent years, there has been a push by activists to use “food apartheid” instead of “food desert” to highlight how systemic racism and oppression led to limited access to healthy food.
Anne Cafer, director of the Center for Population Studies, assistant professor of sociology and co-director of UM Community First Research Center for Wellbeing and Creative Achievement, does not agree with this switch.
“I think the term apartheid has a very specific public connotation—speaking very clearly of racial divides and specifically Black and white divides. I would worry that the use of apartheid would negate the nuances of race and racial disparities in food access and subsequently health access; it isn’t just a Black and white issue,” Cafer said. “(It also) negates the important differences in how poor food environment is experienced by folks from other types of demographic groups, rural versus urban for example or female-headed households. However I readily admit I don’t have a better phrase.”
According to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, 70% of households eligible for SNAP benefits travel more than 30 miles to reach a supermarket. Traveling such distances can be expensive for low-income families who are already facing financial struggles.
The Oxford Community Market is a non-profit organization committed to supporting local farmers and building a local food system that helps address food insecurity by making healthy, local food accessible to the community.
Market director Betsy Chapman emphasized the importance of creating a community.
“Our goal is to build a farmers market community where everybody feels welcome. We want our vendors and customers and volunteers and everything we do to reflect the demographics of our community at large,” Chapman said.
The Oxford Community Market has multiple programs, which include accepting SNAP benefits, which they match up to $20, and participating in a Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
The Oxford Community Market also sends fresh produce to the Oxford Food Pantry.
“All of our outreach work is centered around providing services for people who are most likely at risk of food insecurity and trying to reach their nutritional needs,” Chapman said.
The market goes into communities facing food insecurity and helps make healthy, local food accessible.
On Nov. 14, the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement hosted their “Are You Ready?” dialogue series about “Food Insecurity in Our City.” It was a roundtable discussion on food insecurity and how it impacts the community. Limited access to food can lead to poor health conditions.
“A lot of the food that we have access to that is inexpensive are the unhealthy foods,” Victoria Zigmont, assistant professor of public health and health sciences, said. “Fruits and vegetables are typically more expensive than the unhealthy foods, so people that are experiencing food insecurity have an easier time getting these unhealthy foods, and over time if you keep eating unhealthy foods you’re more likely to develop different chronic diseases.”
The chronic diseases that can develop from food insecurity include obesity and hypertension. If someone is already experiencing food insecurity, they may not have access to preventive screenings that can prevent heart attacks.
There are multiple ways to combat food insecurity.
“There are many policy and practical approaches,” Cafer said. “For example, subsidizing the production of horticultural products in the same way we do commodity crops. Developing robust rural transportation networks to get folks to grocery stores or supporting local grocers. These types of challenges require multiple stakeholders, multiple disciplines and lots of nuance.”