In the poorest county, in America’s poorest state, a virus hits home: 'Hunger is rampant'

Oliver Laughland in Lexington, Mississippi

On the cracked country roads of Lexington, deep in the Mississippi delta, an empty yellow school bus drives slowly, making life-sustaining drop offs on the way.

Here, in the poorest county, in America’s poorest state, the coronavirus has yet to ravage the jurisdiction with infection. There has been one recorded Covid-19 death in the county, Clinton Cobbins, Lexington’s first African American mayor. But even now the coronavirus still poses a serious threat to life.

In Holmes county consolidatedthe school district to which Lexington belongs – every single child qualifies for free school meals, a marker of pervasive poverty. For many, said superintendent Dr James L Henderson, breakfast and lunch at school are the only nutritious meals a student will eat in a day. For a few, they are the only meals.

When the coronavirus pandemic led to statewide school closures, Henderson, who was born in the county, left for most of his adult life, but returned in 2018 to assume his position, was left with a significant dilemma: how to feed the 3,000 children under his authority.

Many children in this rural district come from households too poor to afford a car. So the superintendent embarked on an improvised project, driving 6,000 meals a day out across the county in a small fleet of 70 school buses, dropping each packet off at a stop along the route.

“We absolutely see this as a matter of life and death,” he said. “We have to do it on behalf of our children. It’s just that simple. Families are suffering here.”

“If there is a silver lining to Covid-19, even in the poorest county in the poorest state, we genuinely care about each other. We are working to that end to make sure we’re providing for all children.

The novel strategy underlines the escalating crisis the coronavirus has imposed on Mississippi, America’s most food insecure state. In Holmes county 35% of residents are already food insecure, according to recent research and that number is certain to rise substantially as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold.

As the yellow school bus pulled into one driveway, nine-year-old Keizarrian Thomas dashed from his porch and collected three lunch packages – two for his brothers. A juice box, three celery sticks and a ham sandwich in each.

‘This is getting so much harder’

His mother, Felichia Walden, had just been furloughed from her job at a local car company because of the virus.

“With the money that we do have we’ve got to try and pay the bills,” she said. “And when you go to the grocery store you can hardly get things.”

At the next stop, a few hundred feet down the street, Arletha Gaston took four meals for her children who sat on the stoop of their trailer home, playing tag in the morning sun.

How to help


Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 40 million Americans relied on food banks to get enough to eat. Now, the demand for emergency food aid is growing exponentially as millions of people lose their jobs. 

As this demand grows, food banks are receiving far fewer donations from retailers as people are buying in bulk, so stocks are low. This means food banks must buy more supplies to make sure they have enough to feed every hungry American asking for help.


Donate money or supplies


The Feeding America network of 200 food banks secures and distributes 4.3 billion meals each year through 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. They help vulnerable communities including the elderly and disabled, as well as providing free nutritional lunches for school children from low-income families.

If you want to help, find your local food bank, and go to their website to donate. You can also donate to Feeding America’s Covid-19 response fund.


Volunteers


Food banks rely on volunteers, and Feeding America and food pantries across the US urgently need help as most regular volunteers are senior citizens who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. If you are interested in becoming a new volunteer, use Feeding America’s tool to find your local food bank or pantry but please get in touch with them first before showing up. Remember, if you’re worried about your own health or the risk to a family member, “stay home” is the advice.


Social media


Feeding America also says you can help in small ways like following your local food bank on social media and sharing what they are doing online, or by becoming an advocate for the fight to end hunger in America.


“This is getting so much harder,” she said. “We’re trying to get out of town to look for better deals on food.”

Holmes county, with a population of 18,000 people, has only two fresh grocery stores and both face allegations of price gouging during the pandemic.

Zelpha Whatley, who hosts a weekly local call in radio show, said countless listeners, many of whom receive food stamps to purchase their basic groceries, had complained on her show about rising prices – in some instances tripling or quadrupling the price.

“I couldn’t believe these two stores would take advantage of the situation,” she said. “So I went to one to check myself. When I saw the price of eggs had doubled, I walked out and said ‘I’m not paying’. My brain just melted because I was so upset.”

In a brief phone interview the owner of Lexington’s only grocery store, Roy Sims, denied he had inflated prices for profit, arguing produce, including eggs, dairy and meat, had risen at wholesale. Sims declined to cite specific margins.

“If people have a problem they should report it to the Attorney General of Mississippi,” he said. “We’re not talking to anyone else about price gouging.”

Mississippi may still be at the early stage of the pandemic compared to other hotspots in the US – particularly neighbouring Louisiana. Thirty-five people have died of Covid-19 here with 1,455 cases statewide. But the state already has the highest rate of hospitalizations due to coronavirus, according to analysis by Mississippi Today.

As the school bus food drop offs concluded their lunchtime run last Wednesday, Republican governor Tate Reeves announced a state-wide shelter in place order, after days of criticism his administration had been too slow to act.

“I pray that all of our orders and preparations will be enough. We believe that this is the right tool at the right time to save lives,” Reeves said.

But the virus has already amplified food insecurity across Mississippi, not just in Holmes county.

“Hunger is rampant here,” said Charles Beadie, CEO of the Mississippi Food Network, the only in-state foodbank that distributes to 415 agencies. “600,000 were already going to bed hungry or not knowing how they will get their meal.”

The network is under major pressure in the first few weeks of the crisis. A number of agencies have closed down due to volunteers being afraid of infection. At least one county in the state now has no access to food bank resources. The network is chronically understaffed and free labor from the state’s prison network is no longer available due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, demand has surged.

“We have more phone calls than we can handle,” Beadie said, acknowledging his organization was struggling to quantify the increased scale of demand.

‘It’s like a scavenger hunt’

In Jackson, the state’s capital city, volunteers have begun running hot meal services to some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Like Holmes county and dozens of other districts in the state, every child in Jackson qualifies for free school meals. And while the school district continues to offer a pick up meal service there are no drop offs here.

April Jackson, a 30-year-old mother of seven, has no car and said she had been unable to pick up meals for her children provided by the school.

Volunteers from the Poor People’s Campaign, and Operation Good – a local collective of activists – have been organizing hot food drop offs at this low income apartment complex, for the past week.

“It’s like a scavenger hunt,” Jackson said as residents queued for handouts. “People are going crazy and everyone is on the hunt for food.”

She lost her part-time job this week at a school cafeteria and is now completely reliant on handouts and food stamps to feed her family. She received $278 in weekly food benefits before the crisis and had expected more after the state announced an increase in emergency benefits to families. She said she got just $6 more.

“I just took it,” she said. “I bought a block of cheese. That was it.”