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Mississippians struggle to keep food on the table during COVID-19 pandemic
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People line up at state fairgrounds in Jackson to receive food boxes
Kobee Vance

The number of people going hungry in Mississippi has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, and Mississippi is leading the nation in food insecurity.

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Hundreds of cars are wrapped around the state fairgrounds in Jackson with people waiting to receive free boxes of food.

"It's hard to find stuff you need, essentials, you know? It's crazy. The first time I walked into Walmart and the shelves were empty, I cried."

Pam Roberts along with her friend Aletha have been waiting in line for hours to receive a week's worth of meals. Both are out of work because of the pandemic and are relying on free food assistance.

"And what we do when we get it, we dump it all out and we get what we want, and then we pick something for other people who couldn't find a ride or something, older people," says Roberts." We love to help others."

Included in the meal boxes are things like chicken, eggs and milk, all sourced from Mississippi farmers.

Rosie Ryan of Byram is also waiting in line for her box of food. She's out of work, and her kids are distance learning from home and can no longer rely on school meals.

"It's gonna last a whole week, that'll be wonderful, good. Like I say, children at home every day, got to have three meals. This will help out a whole lot because I'm not working right now," says Ryan.

I asked her what job she used to have and Ryan answered "Oh I was a hairstylist, but I've got health problems. Diabetes, sickle cell, stuff like that. And I'm scared of this stuff (coronavirus)."

1400 family size boxes are being handed out as part of the USDA's Farmers to Families food box program.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson says the program not only benefits farmers but families who are impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. He says "There are families who have been impacted so severely by this virus with the loss of jobs, income, a lot of people who are still looking for work don't have work. So this is directly responsive to helping people in need, and at the same time it is filling that gap in the supply chain that existed in the spring and early summer of this year."

According to Feeding America, more than 720,000 Mississippians are food insecure, meaning people don't have easy access to healthy food. That number has increased by 75% since 2018, and much of that is caused by the coronavirus.

Will Davis, Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University, says people who previously were able to afford healthy meals may have lost their jobs or a significant portion of their income. "So you are having a lot of people who are becoming food insecure who maybe weren't before. And so they're not signed up for a lot of these federal assistance programs that are meant to buffer against food insecurity," says Davis. "A lot of people that work in service-related fields are becoming food insecure at an alarming rate. And also the people who were already food insecure and already disadvantaged, it's just getting worse."

The latest statistics show that Mississippi's July unemployment rates reached 11.5%, almost double the rate from last year.

And as Rosie Ryan nears the front of the line to pick up her meals for the week, the out of work mother says she's thankful for programs like these.

"If it wasn't for these food pantry giveaways like they're doing, it would be rough. Yea, it would be rough," says Ryan.

Experts say even after the state recovers from the economic impact of the coronavirus, there could be lasting effects where many Mississippians may still struggle to feed their families.