by David Buys
Dr. David Buys is the State Health Specialist with Mississippi State University Extension. Based in Starkville, he works statewide with Extension agents and other partners. For more than 15 years, he has studied and implemented interventions on food insecurity at individual, local, state, national and international levels.
Mississippi’s extraordinary legacy of culinary excellence is well documented both in this magazine issue and in the experiences of many Mississippians and travelers who stop in and dine here. However, not all Mississippians are beneficiaries of our rich food history. Across Mississippi, nearly 16% of our residents live with food insecurity.
Food insecurity is a state of having limited or uncertain access to food, and it may stem from any or all of the concept’s pillars — availability, access, use, or stability. In thinking about food insecurity or it’s corollary, food security, we often ask the following:
- Is there enough food being produced and available to feed the population?
- Is the food that’s available in reach — or accessible — to the population?
- How is the food that individuals choose being used, and is it made up of adequate nutrients? Also, is there clean water to cook with?
- Are the economy, climate and other forces in the population stable enough to ensure consistent availability of and access to food?
Fortunately, at this point in history, there is plenty of food available to feed everyone. But in Mississippi, things start to break down when we talk about food accessibility. Not everyone here has access to food, and of those who do, many don’t have nutritious food within reach. More than 53% of Mississippians live in rural areas, and nearly one in five live in poverty; both of these complicate and exacerbate the challenges of food insecurity, sometimes due to limited opportunities for jobs that offer a living wage.
“More than 53% of Mississippians live in rural areas, and nearly one in five live in poverty.”
For folks who have not experienced periods of food insecurity during their life — and for those who have and were able to overcome it — it is worth considering how to help tackle this challenge. Several key intervention strategies are working to address food insecurity, yet this patchwork approach does not provide solutions for everyone experiencing food-related challenges.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers direct government relief. To qualify for SNAP benefits, one must not exceed a low-income threshold; must be unemployed or work part-time; must receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other assistance payments; or be elderly or disabled and have a small income.
Additionally, local food pantries offer emergency food assistance with varying degrees of frequency — monthly, bi-weekly and, in other cases, more or less frequently. Many pantries receive food from the Mississippi Food Network (MFN), Mississippi’s regional food bank. MFN gets food directly from the United States Department of Agriculture through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to distribute to people needing this emergency assistance. Much of its food is from U.S. farmers who may have surplus products, creating a symbiotic relationship between the farmers who need to sell their food and people in need of it.
Local food pantries sometimes lack options for fresh foods, meats and dairy. However, that’s changing as pantries increasingly add refrigerated space and pursue these items through the MFN or private donations.
How can the average person make a difference in addressing food insecurity?
First, check your assumptions about people who access benefits like SNAP. Unless we’ve walked in their shoes, we cannot understand what it must be like to seek out those services. Just changing our thinking about these things can help open our minds and hearts to other ways to help.
Second, find a local food pantry in your community and identify ways you can assist. Is it giving your time to help pack food for distributions, donating food or contributing money so the pantry operators can fill in the gaps with what’s needed to provide a more nutritionally rich food package? Or maybe there’s not a pantry in your area, and you can work toward starting one.
Third, think upstream. Remember, food insecurity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People who are living with food insecurity are not able to buy food because they are not able to earn a living wage, which may be an economic development issue, or it could be an educational attainment issue. Other people may not have transportation to places to buy food. When we work on jobs, education, transportation and the economy in our communities, with an eye for creating positions that pay a living wage, we are indirectly addressing food insecurity.
Whatever your approach, find a way to help fight food insecurity so that everyone in Mississippi can access our fantastic food heritage and enjoy the diverse flavors available across the state.