How Do People Living in a Food Desert Feed Themselves Amid a Pandemic?

In Mississippian Richard Wright’s ferocious short story Hunger, an overworked, time-pressed mother sends her young son to the grocery story with a list, a basket and a few dollars. When he returns with no groceries, having been relieved of his money by a gaggle of neighborhood boys, she sends him out again, this time with a stick as a weapon, which he’s forced to use — busting heads, drawing blood and winning the streets. “I flayed with tears in my eyes, teeth clenched, stark fear making me throw every ounce of my strength behind each blow. I hit again and again….”

But in the present moment’s nonfictional reality of West Jackson, Mississippi, an even greater hazard than maneuvering around a few local toughs exists — in the neighborhood of 30,000 residents, there’s no grocery store.

Since the Cash & Carry grocery store relocated from West Jackson to South Jackson two years ago in pursuit of larger square footage and an enlarged customer base, the sole source for purchasing groceries in the neighborhood has been an understaffed, and to hear the local shoppers tell it, sometimes unsanitary, Dollar General store. But on February 27 — the night that members from three neighborhood associations, dozens of homeowners, individual concerned community members and a representative from neighboring Jackson State University’s Office of Engagement for the West Jackson Corridor held an emergency community meeting at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Development — Dollar General, too, had shuttered its doors. The company would be hauling off the last of its fixtures by month’s end.

Cooperation Jackson, a Black economic empowerment and democracy group that’s been enacting its program of generating cooperatively owned businesses based on the Mondragon Principles since May 1, 2014, purchased the strip mall last year, adding it to properties in the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust as a bulwark against gentrification. It is the only strip mall within walking distance of the majority of residents in West Jackson. Two businesses — a thriving neighborhood dance studio and longtime barbershop — remain as renters in the neighborhood-scaled mall where the empty storefronts of the Dollar General and former Cash & Carry await a new infusion of businesses in the cooperative model. Throughout the plaza the walls have been beautified by muralists. The variety of artistic styles, quality of execution, heartfelt imagery and thoughtful messaging both demonstrate solidarity from the arts scene and send a powerful signal of Cooperation Jackson’s intention to catalyze West Jackson into transforming the plaza into a vital, vibrant and vigorous community hub.

Johnie Harris, owner of the barbershop, sees the food crisis as an opportunity to galvanize West Jackson to avoid disaster. “We have to save the community and reinvigorate the plaza,” he told Truthout. Harris hopes a political strategy will evolve as the community continues to unite. “The politicians are not putting the money and resources into the streets and infrastructure, for what reason I don’t know yet,” Harris said. “Our community’s going to have to get together and get more information to find out why monies aren’t coming into the community and being utilized as they should be. We may need to go down to the City Council meetings to participate more and demand that they do.”

Cooperation Jackson has prioritized food sovereignty and food security as key tenets of its program from its inception. Its members called the February 27th meeting and vigorously promoted it, sending out street teams to post flyers and alert the area’s residents, because “no one in this neighborhood should go hungry,” said Sister Imani Olugbala of Freedom Farms Cooperative, whose garden beds are adjacent to the Balagoon Center. “This is our neighborhood, this is our family,” Olugbala, a longtime Jackson resident, said with solemnity at the emergency meeting.

Sheila Harper of Poindexter Neighborhood Association urging unified forward action.
Sheila Harper of Poindexter Neighborhood Association urging unified, forward action.
Elijah Williams, a cofounder of Cooperation Jackson and Operations Supporter, and Imani Olugbala, CJ Executive Committee member and Freedom Farms Cooperator invite members of the community to join in organic food production at the Emergency Meeting held on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.
Elijah Williams, a co-founder and operations supporter of Cooperation Jackson, and Imani Olugbala, a Cooperation Jackson executive committee member and Freedom Farms cooperator, invite members of the community to join in organic food production at an emergency meeting on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.

Jackson is advantaged by a 231-day growing season and plentiful rainfall. In addition to Freedom Farms, community gardens are being established on vacant lots throughout the Land Trust properties; composting sheds have been designed and the materials to build them ordered. “We are growing to make sure that at ground zero, we have natural and organic food for everyone who wants it,” said Joshua Dedmond, Cooperation Jackson’s national outreach coordinator. Dedmond was born and raised in Jackson and hopes to raise his 2-year-old daughter in the city he loves.

“You work in the garden,” he reminded the meeting attendees, “you have the right to go back and get you something to eat.”

One of the community gardens on the Community Land Trust property.
One of the community gardens on the Community Land Trust property.

But with the nearest grocery store located five miles away, and with many of the poorer residents lacking for vehicles and reliable public transportation options (roundtrip bus fare is $3.50), thousands of people may be hard-pressed to obtain fresh food until a new grocery store opens within walking distance. Kali Akuno, one of Cooperation Jacksons founders, told Truthout that ordering from Amazon Prime or other online vendors is not the simple fix it might be in other communities because of the neighborhood’s demographics.

“Many of the same people who do not have vehicles, also do not have internet access, especially our elderly folks. We’re going to have to accelerate the plans we already had in place to create food production,” Akuno said. “Within two years, we hope to provide the necessary caloric intake for 20,000 of our people. Our vision includes creating an aquaponics/hydroponics facility, establishing a Black farmers market, opening a café and bringing forward the new grocery store.”

“Closing the store in West Jackson was one of the worst mistakes we ever made,” said a humble but resolute Greg Price, president of Jackson Cash & Carry, when he addressed the emergency meeting. “We’re going to open a store back in the community, to serve the community. But,” he cautioned, “it takes the whole community to make a business successful. We can feed ourselves with no problem; we just have to get together and use our resources wisely.”

Cooperation Jackson's Outreach, Organizing and Base Building Team (standing, left to right) Joshua Dedmond and Shambe Jones as attendees introduce themselves before commencing the Emergency Meeting held on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.
Cooperation Jackson’s Outreach, Organizing and Base Building Team members (standing, left to right) Joshua Dedmond and Shambe Jones introduce themselves before commencing an emergency meeting on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.
Abrianni Perry, one of CJ's Freedom Farms anchors, facilitates the visioning session for development of the Ida B. Wells Plaza at the Emergency Meeting held on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.
Abrianni Perry, one of Cooperation Jackson’s Freedom Farms anchors, facilitates a visioning session for development of the Ida B. Wells Plaza at an emergency meeting on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.

Price told Truthout that it will cost $250,000 at a minimum to get the store going, and that he’s optimistic that he can secure the financing through traditional credit mechanisms with commercial banks or credit unions — loans, plus federal grants, since West Jackson meets all three criteria for “urban food desert” status. According to metrics employed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are measured in distance to the grocery store, income levels of the residents and access to a vehicle. USDA statistics indicate that more than 23 million Americans live in rural and urban food deserts, and several affected communities, especially in the South, have visited Cooperation Jackson to see for themselves, or otherwise have their eyes on Cooperation Jackson’s process and progress, how they, too, can advance. “The faster we can get the community involved, the faster we can get things to the point where we want them to be,” Price told the meeting.

He’s energized by the idea of operating a community cooperative. “You give people the opportunity to have some ownership in the business and they’ll take care of the business,” Price advised. He’s eager to have the grand opening ribbon cutting, and like many other food cooperatives across the nation, is open to partnering on public events on recipe swaps, nutrition, organic farming, juicing, tinctures, teas, medicinal herbs, making traditional foods, food growing and climate change, and other crucial topics of interest to the community. This healing vision of a kind of community natural health wellness center in the Ida B. Wells Plaza (as it was renamed by the members of Cooperation Jackson after they bought it) is consonant with Wells’s legacy.

Journalist, educator and an iconic matriarch of Black liberation, Ida B. Wells had a special and deep relationship to food growing, Akuno told Truthout.

“Ida B. Wells was a native of Mississippi,” Akuno explained. “She got her career covering a lynching … of her friend Thomas Moss and two of his associates; they had started a successful food co-op in Memphis called ‘The People’s Grocery,’ and were lynched for it.”

Several members of the Poindexter Park Neighborhood Association and two of the tenants of the Ida B. Wells Plaza consider possibilities for revitalization of the plaza at the Emergency Meeting held on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.
Several members of the Poindexter Park Neighborhood Association and two of the tenants of the Ida B. Wells Plaza consider possibilities for revitalization of the plaza at an emergency meeting on February 27, 2020, at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development.

It is Cooperation Jackson’s practice to give recognition and honor to the struggles that have come before and to those who led or inspired them — Kuwasi Balagoon, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, and soon Thomas Moss and his two workers Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart.

“We named the plaza after her, and when we make the transition to turning to the new food co-op, we’re already committed to calling it ‘The People’s Grocery,’” Akuno said. “We are really going back into our collective memory and finally recognizing our history.”

Part of that history is eerily relevant to the current pandemic crisis: When Ida B. Wells was only 16 years old, her parents and one of her siblings perished in an outbreak of yellow fever.

In a food desert as barren as the one in West Jackson, helpful suggestions to “eat healthy” to boost one’s immune system in defense of the ravages of Coronavirus are not just absurdly and painfully moot, they’re a spur in the side of the galloping horse the collective is already riding. On March 25, they issued a statement preparing their people not only for anticipated breakdowns in the healthcare and food delivery systems but for the possibility of suspension of the Posse Comitatus Act, enabling the use by the Trump regime of the U.S. military to “maintain order.” They say at that point “all hell could break loose.”

Akuno told Truthout that community defense is paramount and that, guided by fellow cooperators in Italy, their first priority must be the fabrication of masks as a precondition to mutual aid. To that immediate end they’re forming a sewing team and deploying the resources of their “fab lab” in their Community Production Cooperative to mass produce them in the coming days.

“We are going to use the Ida B. Wells Plaza as a mutual aid distribution center,” Akuno said. “Other than that, we are trying to accelerate our plans to open up The People’s Grocery as soon as this crisis breaks.”