September 28, 2017

#MAZONontheRoad: Reflections from Mississippi

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In September, MAZON’s Program Director Daniel Rosove and I embarked on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to meet with folks on the ground to try to better understand the unique issues that affect food insecurity in the state. I grew up in the South, so I thought I knew what to expect. However, we encountered a reality I had personally never experienced: an ecosystem nearly void of nutritious food options accompanied by an obesity epidemic affecting nearly 43% of the adult population.

You don’t have to be a health nut (and believe me, I’m not) to know that our nation is abuzz with talk about good, healthy food. But I was surprised at how difficult it was to find any fresh fruits and vegetables in Jackson. I actively sought out fruit in coffee shops and convenience stores during my stay – and never found any. The simple but unavoidable truth is: for far too many people in Mississippi, and especially for those living in low-income communities and communities of color, healthy food options are simply out of reach.

SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) is designed to help low-income individuals and families put food on the table. But if an area has no grocery store – a reality that afflicts many impoverished communities, even residents who receive SNAP benefits are left with few choices: they can drive farther to use SNAP in a grocery store - if they have reliable transportation, of course. Or, use their SNAP dollars at stores that are closer to home, which often means going to the nearest liquor store for whatever they have available, most often potato chips or candy bars. With these burdens, it is no surprise that these same communities face the highest risks of obesity, diabetes, and other preventable food-related health challenges.

I’m embarrassed that I used to think this way, but I always thought obesity was a result of a lack of discipline and unhealthy choices. But after visiting Mississippi, I’ve come to understand that if someone is overweight, there are likely numerous factors at work. I now see how easy it is to be food insecure AND obese. It’s not always about making the “choice” to eat healthier, because sometimes there is no choice.

So, what do we do? Even as progress is being made to improve access to SNAP in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, millions of Americans are still struggling to put healthy food on the table. It’s clear that we must prioritize work at all levels—local, state, regional, and federal—to improve access to nutritious food.