The Investigators: This Mississippi county feeds people across the world but its residents can’t buy fresh produce

Quitman County became a food desert overnight when its only full-service grocery store closed in 2017

How Quitman County became a food desert

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Around 5 on Monday night, 85-year-old Ernestine Rucker is making dinner. The kitchen where she is cooking hasn’t changed in 60 years, but where she buys her groceries has changed drastically.

“I have to get my groceries transported in,” Rucker told the Investigators.

The only full-service grocery store in Quitman County, Mississippi closed in May 2017, turning the entire county into a food desert overnight.

Now, people who live here must travel over 40 miles round-trip to grocery shop. Many elderly people in the county cannot drive at all.

“I’m in my 80s and I don’t do a lot of driving,” said Ms. Rucker. “My children don’t want me to do a lot of driving, especially out on the highway.”

So Paula Rucker, Ms. Rucker’s daughter, does the grocery shopping and transporting.

The Investigators tagged along one Saturday morning as she drove from her home in Memphis to a Kroger in Hernando where she picked up what her mom needed for the month.

The total trip from Memphis to Marks, Mississippi is over three hours. What does Paula Rucker do to pass the time?

“I sing in the car. I pray a lot,” she said.

Ms. Rucker pays her daughter in gas money for the trip.

“That’s expensive but that’s what has been happening since the closure,” said Ernestine.

“I mean, they barely have money to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Can you imagine paying someone to take you shopping?” said Velma Wilson.

Mid-Southerners living in a food desert

Wilson, a Quitman County native, is now the county administrator.

Wilson says another grocery hasn’t moved to Quitman because of the county’s poverty, unemployment and dwindling population.

“To find someone who has the experience and say ‘I want to invest in this community and open up’ would be wonderful but that probably won’t happen," said Wilson.

To understand how Quitman County got to where it is today, you have to understand its history.

At just over 400 square miles, Quitman’s entire population hovers around 8,000 people and is 71% African American.

Marks is the county seat and was once deemed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the poorest place in the country. For that reason, he chose Marks to start his Poor People’s Campaign.

King envisioned a march from Marks to the nation’s capitol, complete with mules and wagons to emphasize the poverty people were experiencing.

According to the United States Census, the county is one of ten poorest in the nation.made it to Washington.

However, Quitman County residents still suffer from generational poverty.

According to the United States Census, the County is one of the 10 poorest in the nation with 37.6% of Quitman living in poverty. The median household income is $27,767, that’s less than half the national average of $61,937.

The manufacturing plants in the county closed long ago, over half the businesses in downtown Marks and downtown Lambert are empty, and the county’s hospital shut down in 2016.

A Family Dollar and Dollar General opened in Marks but there is no fresh produce to be found.

“Getting the right products - the milk, the fresh vegetables - that is just key,” said Wilson.

According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, 55.9% of Quitman County is obese and the rate of heart attack and stroke are double the national average.

Unfortunately, Quitman County isn’t alone. Mississippi is the poorest state in the United States. According to the United State Department of Agriculture, 31% of Mississippians live in areas that are low income with low access to food.

Ironically, agriculture is the biggest industry in both the state and the county.

“We grow healthy foods and then the consumers in our area can’t consume them. So, it’s crazy,” said farmer Robbie Pollard.

This Mississippi County feeds people across the world but its own residents can’t buy fresh produce. Joyce Peterson and Jessica Jaglois are talking about Quitman County's fight for fresh food. You can watch this full story tonight at 10.

Posted by WMC Action News 5 on Monday, February 17, 2020

Small farmers, like Pollard, sell to the Alcorn Vegetable Processing Plant in Marks.

During the growing season, the plant employs seasonal workers to process peas for the Kroger in Batesville, which is 30 minutes away.

“We need a grocery store as bad as we can because the people have to drive so far,” said Percy Baldwin, who is in charge of the Alcorn Processing Plant. “The older people in this town, they ain’t able to go to the grocery store. We need one here badly, badly, badly.”

With no grocery chains currently looking to set up shop in Quitman, Wilson hopes the county government can open their own store.

The old Supervalu has already been donated to the County and Wilson secured over $200,000 in state money for a supermarket. She says they still need another $350,000 and someone willing to run the store before the doors can open once again.

Wilson says Sav-A-Lot has agreed to invest some money in a new store but they still need an operator - someone to run and manage it.

Last year, Wilson applied for a USDA grant that would have provided the rest of the money they need but the grant was denied because there isn’t an operator in place.

Still, Wilson has faith.

“I’m willing to invest our time to try and make it happen. And it will happen. It’s just a process,” she said.

Paula Rucker hopes that’s a promise kept.

“If a grocery store opens, it’ll mean when I come, I come to visit. It won’t be that I’m doing a small job or a small task,” she told the Investigators.

Her mom also hopes a new store will open once again.

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