Small Towns Can Address Large Food Insecurity Issues

by Erica Hensley, For the MSU Extension Service

Sunflower County Supervisor Gloria Dickerson and Extension Agent Alexis Hamilton meet at the town of Drew’s former military armory, which now houses the Drew Collaborative’s Grocery Ordering and Online Distribution Service (GOODS), on Oct. 5, 2021. The service launched earlier this year to help folks in Drew use online grocery ordering systems and ease transportation barriers to and from the closest grocery store, in neighboring Cleveland. (Photo by Erica Hensley)

DREW, Miss. -- The small Delta town of Drew in the heart of Sunflower County has created a private, public and academic partnership to fight food insecurity. For its efforts, the town recently received a big new honor, along with funding to advance ongoing health equity improvements. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) last month awarded Drew and nine other communities the 2020–2021 Culture of Health Prize, along with $25,000.

“The 2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize winners are striving to make good health and well-being achievable for all their residents,” RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser said in a press release. “They understand the clear connection between the opportunity for health and education, jobs, and housing. They are leaning into community-led solutions that break down barriers caused by structural racism and other forms of discrimination.”

Mississippi State University Extension Service agent Alexis Hamilton knows Drew well. Through MSU Extension’s AIM for CHangE (Advancing, Inspiring, Motivating for Community Health through Extension) program, which focuses on reducing obesity in the Delta, Hamilton and other agents help communities execute locally led public health initiatives that increase access to healthy food and physical activity, including outdoor exercise spaces, wellness classes and healthy food distributions.

Most recently in Drew, Hamilton helped launch a ride-share program that helps residents get access to fresh food and groceries. Healthy Destination Access is a partnership between MSU Extension, the Bolivar County Council on Aging and the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Participants can use the service to get to and from Cleveland -- about 30 minutes from Drew -- where the closest grocery stores are located.

Though residents and local stakeholders are excited about the program, getting riders familiar with the new food access point has had its challenges. Hamilton has hit the pavement across Drew apartment complexes and neighborhoods offering folks information about the new program and asking questions in order to continually tweak and improve the program to meet the community need.

“Many residents have informed us that they have to wait or pay someone to take them to the grocery store when food is a necessity,” Hamilton said. “But we want to make the service affordable and convenient for all Drew residents.”

Extension recently 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. So far, 30 residents have used the service in the past two months.

In Sunflower County, 22% of residents are considered food insecure, or not having consistent access to healthy food. This is one of the highest rates in Mississippi, compared to 18.5% of state residents overall and 10.9% of all Americans. Technically, the entire town of Drew is considered a “food desert,” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as rural areas without a grocery store in a 10-mile radius.

Experts point out that food insecurity is a big risk factor for chronic illness, particularly diabetes and cardiac conditions. In Sunflower County, one in four residents lives with diabetes -- the highest rate in the state.

“While we will never stop thinking about every angle to get healthy food options to the people, we have begun to also think creatively about bringing communities to the food,” said MSU Extension state health specialist David Buys.

Buys pointed to the similarities between public health programs and clinical medical practice and how they need to coordinate. He said both should constantly shift to adapt to their surroundings, needs and perceptions -- something many folks saw for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Physicians treat different patients differently based on diagnoses, and we have to treat public health interventions -- like our work to address food insecurity -- the same.” Buys said. “We work from what evidence shows us and then contextualize it to meet a community’s needs, like what Alexis is continually doing in Drew.”

In addition to Extension’s ride-share partnership, other groups address food insecurity by improving food access through new programing.

“The number one need we hear from residents is a local grocery store,” said Sunflower County Supervisor Gloria Dickerson, who initially applied for the RWJF grant.

As part of a private-public partnership, the Drew Collaborative last month launched Grocery Online Ordering Distribution Service (GOODS) out of the city’s old armory building. The new service offers residents help with online grocery orders and will go to Cleveland to pick up orders and use cold-chain transportation and storage to hold and distribute orders until residents can pick them up at the armory.

“MSU Extension didn’t have to bring the ride-share program here, but we can’t thank them enough,” said Drew Mayor Melanie Townsend-Blackmon.

Between the ongoing food insecurity projects and the new RWJF grant, the town is moving the needle on social determinants of health such as like access to transportation, Townsend-Blackmon said.

“Drew is alive as long as we keep partnering,” the mayor added.

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