Food Pantries Help Fill Gap When Stores Close

By Ms. Bonnie A. Coblentz, MSU Extension Service

Many communities in Mississippi are finding creative ways to meet the food security needs of residents living in places with no grocery stores. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Kevin Hudson)

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Rural Mississippians face the same challenge as every other community across the country when a local grocery store closes: Where do lower-income residents find food?

Many communities have chosen to act rather than let this setback destroy the way of life they hold dear. The Mississippi State University Extension Service has been involved in many projects to establish food banks or meal services in underserved areas.

Kenya Cistrunk, MSU associate professor of social work, said there are numerous instances of community members leading efforts to address issues that have plagued them for years.

“It is important to understand the factors or elements of resilience that exist in a food desert and then take those best practices and share them with other people,” Cistrunk said. “If a grocery store leaves, that doesn’t necessarily leave the town high and dry.”

Charlie Estess, a retired MSU Extension agent from Coahoma County, helps operate The Care Station, a service that provides an average of 245 hot meals a day five times a week to residents of Clarksdale.

“We get food from grocery stores on the day of expiration; we process it, prepare it and try to get it on the menu that day,” Estess said.

Everyone at The Care Station is a volunteer, and these community members prep, cook, serve and deliver the food to those in need.

“The folks involved in this mission see it with great responsibility that they are counted on to do what they’re supposed to do,” Estess said.

The small Delta town of Drew in the heart of Sunflower County created a private, public and academic partnership to fight food insecurity. Through MSU Extension’s AIM for CHangE (Advancing, Inspiring, Motivating for Community Health through Extension) program, which focuses on reducing obesity in the Delta, Extension agent Alexis Hamilton helped launch a ride-share program in 2021 that helps residents get access to fresh food and groceries.

Participants can use the Healthy Destination Access ride-share service to get to and from Cleveland -- about 30 minutes from Drew -- where the closest grocery stores are located.

“Many residents have to wait or pay someone to take them to the grocery store,” said Hamilton, who works in Sharkey County. “But we want to make the service affordable and convenient for all Drew residents.”

Extension also launched a similar ride-share program in Washington County that takes residents from Hollandale and Arcola to Hearty Helpings Food Pantry & Soup Kitchen in Greenville. Both programs transport a group on one designated day of the month. In addition to Extension’s ride-share partnership, other groups address food insecurity by improving food access through new programing.

As part of a private-public partnership, the Drew Collaborative launched the Grocery Online Ordering Distribution Service -- or GOODS -- in late 2021. The service helps residents make online grocery orders, picks up the food in Cleveland and then stores it until residents can claim their groceries.

Recognizing the hardships of life without easy access to shopping led Mari Alyce Earnest, an Extension agent in Quitman County, to help open a food pantry in Marks. As county coordinator, she oversees that county’s 4-H and family and consumer sciences programs. In this role, she has become acutely aware of her neighbors’ battles for food security.

“Quitman County is a food desert, and we have the highest food insecurity rate in the state,” she said. “We do not have a grocery store in the county after the one we had closed more than five years ago.”

A dollar store recently opened a small produce section, but the nearest grocery store is more than 20 miles away from any community in Quitman County.

When she was approached by a representative of the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis, Earnest helped form a committee to create a local food pantry. The functioning resource is now operated by volunteers and overseen by a board of directors.

Every month, the food pantry serves more than 800 families, or nearly half the county’s population of 6,792. On four distribution days each month, participants receive a box containing canned goods, frozen meat, and dry goods such as pasta and peanut butter.

“Our food pantry is an absolute necessity for our community because we have people who would go hungry without it,” Earnest said.

For more information on food insecurity or community activism, visit the local Extension office or the MS Food Network, which can provide guidance on how to set up a local food pantry at https://www.msfoodnet.org.

The MSU Television Center created a four-part video series that explores the issue of food insecurity in Mississippi. “The Hungriest State” can be found at https://films.msstate.edu. “The Last Supermarket” examined the grocery situation in Clarksdale. Editor’s note: Erica Hensley contributed material to this story.

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