Helen Stewart wishes her fridge was better stocked, but that is not always possible in Marks, Mississippi. While there were once grocery stores in her community, all of them have closed.
“It is like we are going down instead of going up,” Stewart said.
Without a grocery store nearby, Stuart and her fellow residents have fewer opportunities to get healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. She also says the lack of a store has changed the way they live their lives.
“I would say we had more family dinners going on when the store was there,” Stewart said.
Marks is in Quitman County, and that is where Ole Miss doctoral student Kymberle Gordon is researching the connection between access to food and health. Gordon says poverty is at the heart of many of the food challenges in Marks and around the country.
According to FoodTrust.org, low-income families have more limited access to supermarkets and other healthy food retail outlets that offer large varieties of affordable and nutritious foods. This is called the “Grocery Gap” and Marks has a big one.
“It’s difficult in a place like that to try and understand and figure out a way to help people when their answer, their thought, is to just have a supermarket,” Gordon said because she knows operating a successful grocery store in places like Marks is complicated.
“Someone that owns a business, they’re going to look at whether or not you’ll be profitable because, in the end, even if their goal is to help people, you can’t help people if you can’t stay in business,” Gordon said. “If you’re selling foods and people aren’t buying them, then you’re not going to stay in business.”
According to the 2018 U.S. Census, there are about 1,500 people in Marks, and about 30 percent live below the poverty level. This means approximately one out of every three people in Marks lives in poverty. One contributing factor is a high unemployment level, which is linked to a lack of education. More than a fifth of those over age 25 in Marks have less than a high school education. Nationwide the percentage of people without a high school diploma stands around 10%.
Marks once had a SuperValu, but the grocery-chain store was not profitable and had to close its doors. The Quitman County Board of Supervisors has been working on a plan to create a new Save A Lot Food Store in Marks for almost two years, but the store has not yet opened.
Now, the closest grocery stores are in Clarksdale and Batesville, which are both more than 20 miles away in either direction. Stewart, like many other Marks residents, does not have a car.
“So, it is difficult trying to get to areas,” Stewart said.
Marks (A) is nearly equidistant from the grocery stores in Batesville (B) and Clarksdale (B).
Within Marks, people must rely on the Dollar General for groceries. Stewart depends on her daughter to take her to a grocery store outside the county about twice a month, such as the Piggly Wiggly in Batesville. To make the food last, she must purchase food with a long shelf life such as frozen meats and vegetables.
“I really prefer fresh vegetables, but since we don’t have no store, you know, I try to get frozen stuff,” Stewart said.
People in Marks also have the Trinity Community Center food pantry, but Gordon says even the pantry has limited options.
“There’s no fresh fruits or vegetables,” Gordon said.
Still, she says as many as 800 people rely on the pantry for food. To provide for that many people, the pantry provides non-perishable items such as canned meats, vegetables and fruits, and dry, uncooked pasta.
“That is a lot of people relying on food in a box once every two months,” Gordon said.
The issue is more complex; however, than simply giving people access to healthier foods, according to Gordon. She said education is needed to help residents make better dietary choices for themselves, including learning what types of foods are healthy and how large a serving portion should be.
This can be difficult in rural areas in the South where locals prefer to eat foods that are high in calories such as fried okra and sweet iced tea.
“There’s a lot of interplay between culture and income and race and nutrition,” Gordon said. “It’s all very cyclical, almost, and I think that is with any deep-rooted problem.”
Stewart, understandably, is not focused on these larger issues. She just wants to buy food that’s better for her and her family.
Stewart said that if she had a local grocery store and she could afford the food, she would make a big family dinner with all the trimmings. She would invite her family over, and they would eat at the dinner table.
“I believe we’ll be having more sufficient meals. I really believe that, if we had a grocery store close by,” Stewart said.
The following correction was made to the original post: “The Quitman County Board of Supervisors has been working on a plan to create a new Save A Lot Food Store in Marks for almost two years, but the store has not yet opened.”