By Anna Wolfe, The Clarion Ledger
"RELYING ON OTHER PEOPLE TO TAKE CARE OF OUR FOOD NEEDS WILL KEEP US IN THE SAME SITUATION WE'RE IN."
Editor's note: This story is a continuation of "Surviving 'food apartheid' in Mississippi's capital."
For brandon king of Cooperation Jackson's Freedom Farms, growing food is a form of activism.
king, who spells his name in all lowercase letters, moved to Jackson from New York City nearly four years ago to join a local movement grounded in economic justice and given life with the 2013 mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba, the late father of the current mayor.
king hadn't farmed before, but in a time of transformation for the capital city, Jackson was like a blank canvas. Especially west Jackson, where the cooperative is headquartered and where grocery stores are few and far between.
"I was always from the standpoint of pushing against and fighting against things, to come down here and see people engaged in building the things that we want to see. We needed food so it was like, 'OK, so who's going to farm?' I said, 'OK, I guess it's going to be me,'" king said.
In Jackson, the capital city with a population of roughly 172,000, there are 17 grocery stores, one for every 10,100 people. By contrast, there are 11 grocery stores in the next biggest Mississippi city, Gulfport, one store for every 6,500 people.
As a result of limited options, in addition to high poverty rates, at least one-fifth of folks in Jackson are "food insecure," meaning they lack access to the amount and type of food to keep them healthy and active, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"A lot of people who may not have access to transportation are getting their nourishment from the local corner stores, which don't have fresh produce at all," king said.
Just west of downtown, there's a four-square-mile area absent of any grocery store. The food desert was created by the departure of the West Capitol Street Jackson Cash & Carry.
The store moved to the old Kroger location on Terry Road in south Jackson earlier this year. The building, about a mile from the south Jackson Food Depot, had sat empty for two years.
"Because of that void from Cash & Carry leaving and going to south Jackson, we need to figure out how to deal with the food insecurity here, and one of our goals is to create a cooperative grocery store," king said.
king grows fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, cabbage, collards, kale, honey dew, watermelon and butternut squash — at the cooperative's headquarters, just across the street from the old Cash & Carry.
The group is still working to expand the operation, focused first on supplying food to the cooperative's membership and its catering venture, Nubia's Place.
"Relying on other people to take care of our food needs will keep us in the same situation we're in," king said. "We can't rely on anyone to do that for us; we have to figure out a way to engage in our own food system."
Eventually, king wants to make the farm's produce available to anyone in the community, especially through a cooperative grocery store, to which Freedom Farms would supply fresh produce. The cooperative hopes to use the vacant building Cash & Carry left behind.
Another Jackson farmer, Cindy Ayers of Footprint Farms — a "community-supported agriculture" allowing customers to purchase pounds of produce directly from her — is doing her part to alleviate food deserts.
She operates a mobile market around the state, selling fruits and vegetables from her bright pink bus.
Ayers calls her work "planting seeds" — not just in the ground but in the mind.
"I want people to grow on their stoop, in their backyard. I want them to have the power themselves to bring better food to them," Ayers said.
She has roughly 30 regular customers.
In October, kids from schools around the state visited Jackson Councilman De'Keither Stamp's Trace Pathways Farm for an annual Agricultural Field Day, which teaches children about plants, wildlife and the science of farming.
Every year during this event, Stamps said he witnesses a lightbulb going off: He watches kids learn that food grows from the earth — a new concept to them.
"It is, because we've gotten so disconnected from nature that we believe our reality is real; you get food from the shelf at Walmart. You don't get your food from dirt in the ground," Stamps said.
The efforts of locals like Stamps, Ayers, king and gardener D.J. Baker — who recently planted cabbage in the raised beds at Fondren Park, which had sat idle for years, weeds growing wild — are noble, despite not yet proving scalable.
As few as there are, grocery stores are still where most people get food, and the barriers to getting local food into stores — cost, uniformity, etc. — is a conundrum.
Though it's an agriculture state, 90 percent of the food eaten in Mississippi is imported.
Since relocating, business at locally owned Cash & Carry hasn't done spectacularly.
Owner Greg Price has held promotional events and is now participating in the AARP Foundation Fresh Savings program that gives folks with food stamps a dollar-for-dollar match up to $20 for fresh fruits and vegetables.
But it's a hard draw. Too many people, Price told the Clarion Ledger, are leaving Jackson to shop at stores in Byram or Clinton, ones with greater buying power and a wider selection.
State Sen. John Horhn of Jackson explains: "When you don't have access to services and goods, people tend to follow where those services and goods can be located, if they have a choice. The problem is so many poor people don't have a choice. They can't follow the market ... They just wind up suffering."
Jackson is over 100 square miles, and there is only one Walmart and one Kroger within its city limits.
"It absolutely makes no sense," Horhn said.