November 10, 2017

#MAZONontheRoad: More Reflections from Mississippi

By Samantha Cooke
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Anyone working in Mississippi’s justice community has a tough job. In September, my colleague, Alexis Miller, and I traveled to Jackson, MS, to meet with anti-hunger advocates, funders, activists and NGO professionals. The political reality on the ground was sobering; our friends in Mississippi are fighting regressive economic policies, hostile state agencies, and a legislature disinterested in advancing policies that would strengthen the safety net for its citizens. Not to mention, the dominant political and social culture is deeply questioning of government assistance programs, even while Mississippi receives the second highest amount of federal dollars per capita of any state in the U.S.[1]

We are confident that MAZON’s presence and resources are sorely needed, and there are many opportunities for us to do good work. But it is going to be a challenging road ahead.

Through our conversations, advocates told us about the political and social environment in which they operate. First and foremost, racism and racist stereotypes touch all aspects of public policy and public debate. For example, Former Mississippi State Representative W. 'Gene' E. Alday, Jr. had to issue a public apology in 2015 after saying, "I come from a town where all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call 'welfare crazy checks.' They don't work."[2] (For the record, nationally, white Americans make up the largest share of SNAP users.) In addition, a mayor of an affluent suburb of Jackson enacted zoning laws prohibiting rental property in the town, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Health problems are epidemic, but Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant has repeatedly refused Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which one Mississippi advocacy group said would generate 20,000 new jobs, produce $14 billion in new economic activity and raise the number of insured in the state to over 220,000.[3] Women in Mississippi, according to US census data, possess the worst health and life expectancy and highest unemployment and poverty rates in the US.[4] An epidemic of diabetes related amputations are gripping the state, often due to poor nutrition. 

As for social policy, the legislature recently passed the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act of 2016 (HB 1523), which allows public employees and business owners to refuse service on the basis of homophobic or transphobic religious beliefs. A judge placed a permanent injunction on portions of the law in 2016 with other provisions continuously challenged in the courts.

When it comes to the anti-hunger community, many are working hard through direct service, food systems and economic development with decent success and efficiency. But there is not one single person in the state advocating full time to strengthen and expand the nutrition safety net. Institutional restrictions from conservative boards and donors thwart the emergence of more policy-focused anti-hunger voices from the direct service community. Instead, many residents believe charity alone bears full responsibility for addressing food insecurity. MAZON knows that the charitable food safety net is essential but not sufficient to ending hunger in the US.

So, what did we learn about operating in the state, and where is MAZON’s work headed in the months to come? It’s clear there is a wide need for community organizing, public education, strategic use of data, outreach to disaffected communities and traditional government affairs work. MAZON is in discussions with several groups about multi-year funding relationships enabling them to hire staff to fill this void.

Also, MAZON and partners will be on the lookout for opportunities to engage in more assertive advocacy actions through our newly launched Quick Reaction Fund, a funding stream targeted toward time-sensitive advocacy opportunities on the local and state level.  

Finally, we will collaborate with local organizations to identify mutually beneficial advocacy opportunities. MAZON is dedicated to helping the small, fierce and talented advocacy community work towards changing the long-term political and social dynamics governing food safety net programs, and to building the wider anti-hunger field.  

 “Photo: Daniel Rosove with MAZON partners Beth Orlansky and Olger Twyner from Mississippi Center for Justice.” 

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