New Study Finds 'Food Desert' in Fertile Mississippi Delta

ITTA BENA, Miss. -- The lush, fertile ground of the Mississippi Delta is an abundant source of fresh produce, delivered across the world, but a new study suggests the fruits of the Delta soil are rarely consumed at home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently took on a study of food deserts," areas where sources of fresh food are difficult to find.

A "food desert" is typified by unbalanced food options, meaning a glut of fast food, convenience stores, and liquor stores rather than healthy fresh produce. Food deserts exist across the world and include urban and rural areas.

In Leflore County the USDA study found nearly 12,000 low-income households were more than a mile from a grocery store. An adult obesity rate of 38.6 percent closely follows the 38.8 percent poverty rate.

The citizens of Itta Bena have been without a grocery store since January of last year.

"The biggest concern I'm hearing is that our citizens tremendously need a grocery store," said Wayne Self, president of the Leflore County Board of Supervisors. "If that's what the citizens want, then that's what I am going to fight for."

Self said he was considering bringing a farmer's market to the abandoned Big Star lot in downtown Itta Bena. Though he is still examining that idea until a grocery store can be located, he said the citizens have overwhelmingly expressed that the focus should be on a full grocery store.

Currently, the nearest source of fresh food is Walmart in Greenwood, about seven miles away.

Self said Itta Bena, which has more than 1,000 people, could easily support a grocery store. Mississippi Valley State University students as well as people from Morgan City, Swiftown and Seal City all need such a store, he said.

"We have a lot elderly people that don't have a car," Self said. "Some of them can't afford to pay someone to take them to Greenwood."

John L. Jurney, who has lived in Itta Bena for 30 years, said it's hard having to go to Greenwood for groceries.

"You can't always get to the store, but you got to eat," he said.

Self said he hopes funds may be made available to attract fresh food sources based on Itta Bena residents' nutritional needs. Currently only a few convenience stores and a Dollar General are located in town.

Jurney said the stores available in Greenwood do not provide everything he needs.

"There's certain things you need to eat you just can't get here," Jurney said. "You get tired of cold cuts all the time. I know I do."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, some researchers have linked access to affordable nutritious food and consumption of that food. Other studies have shown that those living in food deserts continue to make unhealthy choices even when healthy choices are made available.

Dr. Anita Batman, a Greenwood family practice physician and former senior public health adviser to the U.S. surgeon general, said the problem is bigger than just Itta Bena. She said it's ironic that an area sitting on 30 feet of some of the"best topsoil in the world" is "hurting for fresh vegetables."

"We could be a wonderful breadbasket. We would not need to import foreign produce," Batman said. "In fact, with a quick-freeze plant, we could feed healthy food to a waiting market, especially in urban areas. Can you imagine a Delta line of organic vegetables? It is a marketer's delight."

Batman said society has only begun to realize the effects of being isolated from fresh fruits and vegetables. These include vitamin deficiencies and other problems.

"Our diet approaches are so wacky," Batman said. "We are made to eat and exercise, not to starve. Humans are born omnivores, so any diet that is predominantly one kind of food, or entirely gives up one food group, is going to cause problems."

Batman said the Delta used to be good about fresh beef and pork, and people had their own gardens. That generation is dying out.

"I'd love to see gardening come back, and I'd love to see food farming come into fashion," Batman said.

She said in some places, people have found it more profitable to build condominiums than plant crops. She said she "almost cried the night Walmart paved one of the best fields" she'd ever seen.

"They dropped pea gravel on it first, like it was their intent to poison the earth," Batman said. "But apparently that wonderful field is more profitable as a parking lot."