Mound Bayou is one of many Mississippi Delta towns that sits on rich soil worthy of farming. It was founded by former slaves, and agriculture was part of its history from the beginning. But by the mid-1960s, many African Americans in this part of state were starving. It was so bad that then U.S .Senator Robert F. Kennedy traveled to Mississippi to investigate. Fast forward 50 years and food insecurity is still a problem. But as MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports, there’s a program that’s trying to tackle hunger – one fresh vegetable at a time.
It’s a Saturday morning in Mound Bayou, and LeBroderick Woods is making sure everything is in order for the day for the weekly mobile market put on by Delta Fresh Foods Initiative.
“These are some sweet potatoes that are about 89 cents per pound that were picked out at the Alcorn [State University] farm this morning,” Woods, who is the market manager, points out as he walks around the market. “Here is okra that’s about a dollar and 25 cents per pound.”
Shopper Angela Henderson eyes boxes of red and green tomatoes, potatoes and okra. She’s here because her small town does not have a grocery store.
“It helps us a lot to get everything we need in one place,” Henderson said after buying okra for her meal. “It is very economical and very healthy.”
In addition to Mound Bayou, the mobile market sets up in Shelby and Winstonville on alternating weekends. The market is always parked in a central location so people can walk to it.
Woods said the nearest grocery store is nine miles and a highway away.
“It’s been a struggle. Mound Bayou is considered to be a food desert because they’re so far away from your nearest Walmart – you have to go to Clarksdale or Cleveland, and if you don’t have transportation, that can be a big issue,” Woods said. “One of the hugest parts is transportation and getting to the locally grown food or fresh food.”
The options close by are not the healthiest options.
“[There are] no stores. We have a Bob's Express that sells fried chicken. But nobody around here in the Mound Bayou area sells fresh produce,” Tanielle Woods explains.
Woods is a college sophomore and youth ambassador with the market. Today, she is one of three youth ambassadors at the market.
Listen to Tannielle Woods on healthy eating:
“My name is Tanielle Woods, I am a sophomore at Mississippi Delta Community College and my major is physical therapy. I’m young and in college and I thought that maybe eating noodles and fried chicken was okay, but eating healthy is not bad.”
The youth ambassadors help grow the food and work in the market. As Woods describes it, they are there from “seed to consumer.”
“They'll bring the price down [on] the unhealthy things and the healthy things we have to pay an arm and a leg for,” said Samuel Ferguson, another youth ambassador. The market accepts cash, card and SNAP benefits.
“I think it's important for every community to have fresh produce and have it for cheap, affordable prices, so we can get it.”
Price and transportation concerns went into how the market runs. Before starting the market, Delta Fresh Foods Initiative surveyed community members to see what they wanted.
Rachael Carter of Mississippi State University said community engagement offers more to rural markets.
“In rural communities when they don't have those options of grocery stores, a market can come in and set up wherever they want to have it in the community,” Carter said. “You can put it where people can walk to the market [and] provide a variety of farm produced products. That’s a wonderful thing for a community that just lost a grocery store.”
In Bolivar County, more than one in four people don’t have reliable access to quality food. In Mississippi, around 16 percent of households are food insecure – and the state ranks second in the nation. Many of the most food insecure regions are in the Mississippi Delta.
A United States Department of Agriculture study found that food insecurity is associated with ten chronic diseases. According to County Health Rankings, Bolivar County’s quality of life ranks 72 out 81 Mississippi counties.
Down the road from the market is The Delta Health Center, which opened in the mid 1960s and was one of the first of its kind in the country. According to Out in the Rural: A Health Center in Mississippi and its War on Poverty by Thomas J. Ward Jr., current issues like transportation and health were prevalent in Bolivar County and the Delta years ago.
David Holben, a professor and director of Food and Nutrition Studies at the University of Mississippi, said these health issues still exist.
“I think people equate the health problems we have in our state and nation to over-nutrition and access to too much food,” Holben said. “When in reality, it might be [that] we have access to high fat and high sugar food that tastes good, and yet are lacking nutrients.”
But Holben said having farmers markets can benefit communities.
“So farmers markets do definitely increase access to healthy food available in rural communities,” Holben said. “They do play a crucial role in people having access to fresh and healthy food in their local area. We’re really talking about a local food system.”
“When farmers markets are in communities and people are using it, there is a health benefit in terms of improved diet,” Darcy Freedman of Case Western Reserve University said. But she also notes farmers markets is not a sole health solution.
“It’s going to be a compilation of many factors that are overall making healthy foods more affordable [and] making them more available in addition to other things like promoting walkability and economic opportunity.”
Back at the market, Henry Herman stands near a red wheelbarrow loaded with green watermelon. Herman had a stroke a few years ago, and said he’s learned about the importance of healthy eating.
“If you get healthy food like it was back in the day, I guarantee there would be a lot less people dying or having health problems,” Herman said.
Larry Haywood also stops by the market. He’s a local grower who is helping the youth ambassadors growing the food.
He, too, has had health issues and says there is a power in eating better.
“You don’t realize that until you start eating healthier...and you realize how to eat to live rather than live to eat,” Haywood said.
LeBroderick Woods on what a "Good Food Revolution" Means:
"Because it’s a change. It’s a paradigm change -- it’s a paradigm change for the community. We’ve gotten so stuck on instant gratification – your Big Macs, your quick meals and things of that nature. We’ve kind of gotten away from things we were raised on – the fresh produce and grandmama’s cooking and things of that nature. So good food is not just good tasting, it’s good for the spirit. It’s good overall. It build character even if you will."
Right now, the market is only in Mound Bayou once every three weeks, but LeBroderick Woods wants to see it expand.
“I hope it grows to us having our own market here, and it being a consistent thing throughout the week -- not just a Saturday event,” says Woods, who comes back every week to his hometown. That it’s something that can be prominent and it lasts through seasons – summer, winter, fall all of the above. That it’s our own Walmart or grocery store here in Mound Bayou.”
Delta Fresh Foods Initiative hopes customers walk away with more than just fresh produce. The organization wants them to learn how to live and eat healthier.