By Caleb Mynatt
After two-and-a-half years of combatting food-related issues in the state of Mississippi, Together for Hope is taking their fight against hunger on the streets and to the Mississippi State Capitol.
Together for Hope, in partnership with the American Heart Association and the Therizo Foundation, are launching the Grow the Good campaign, a grassroots campaign with the goal to allocate $700,000 annually in state funds toward SNAP incentive programs in Mississippi. The campaign is supported by farming organizations, grocery stores, other food organizations and both Republican and Democratic members of Mississippi’s congress. The campaign has a lot of support because of the ripple effect it will have, strengthening the state’s farming industries, food supply chain and, in turn, Mississippi’s economy as a whole.
“We are building a coalition across the state among individuals and organizations, and engaging our politicians at the state level,” said Jason Coker, President of Together for Hope. “We are writing legislation and we have bipartisan support in the House and Senate.”
The campaign is being funded by a grant from Voices for Healthy Children that was co-written between Together for Hope and the American Heart Association. The grant, worth $198,000, will allow Together for Hope to fight poverty and hunger, as well as promote the legislation they need to accomplish their campaign’s overall goal. With the legislative session in the state of Mississippi taking place between January and March, there is limited time to continue to gather support. Luckily, the legislation already has legs.
“Especially in the counties in and around the Delta, the local politicians there are very familiar with Together for Hope’s work,” said Coker. “We have also been able to engage other legislators in other areas, and they all recognize that this is a movement that is happening across the state. We have bipartisan support, which is pretty uncommon in a state like Mississippi.”
The state of Mississippi is facing numerous food-related health crises, but two of them stand out the most: hunger and obesity. According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Mississippi is one of the top 10 hungriest states in America. Along with that, according to the Center for Disease Control, Mississippi also has an adult obesity rate of almost 41%, making it the most obese state in America. Together for Hope is confident that increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables for SNAP recipients will combat both of these issues simultaneously.
“The access to healthy and quality food across the state is harder in some areas than others,” said L Nicole Stringfellow, the Vice-President of Delta Region for Together for Hope. “The Mississippi Delta is a food dessert, and some people have to drive 15-45 minutes one way to get to a grocery store. For lots of people, convenience stores are there grocery stores and that’s not a good thing.”
Part of the appeal of this strategy is the butterfly effect it would have on the rest of Mississippi’s economy, especially in the communities most affected by the hunger crisis. By investing in SNAP incentive programs, it will inherently affect other industries. The biggest recipient of those benefits, by far, would be the local farming industry. By giving subsidies to farmers/farmers markets put additional dollars into their pockets to continue to grow healthy food for their local communities. The hope is that these communities could then have a much heavier reliance on their local farmers for their food-related supply needs as opposed to relying on importation of goods from bigger farming businesses. Add in the boost the trucking and distribution industry would receive, as well as grocery stores increasing revenue, and you begin to fight the problem of food insecurity systemically.
“Around 80% of what is grown is exported, and a lot of the food for people is imported,” said Stringfellow. “If we can figure out what farmers are able to grow, and give them access to do so, that will keep money in the area.”
At the end of the day, the ability to successfully accomplish this mission largely comes from education. Although the economic benefits would have a positive effect on nearly everyone in the state, it has opponents because SNAP carries a negative connotation for a lot of people. Part of this campaign is combatting and dispelling the preconceived notations many people, in Mississippi and beyond, have about SNAP. The education factor, according to Coker, is extremely valuable because it not only combats and changes the conversation about hunger in the state, but also poverty.
“We are trying to reach the people, and the legislatures, that think the poor are poor because they are lazy. That’s an ideology that’s just not true,” said Coker. “The truth is that SNAP benefits the most vulnerable people in our society, specifically children and senior adults. SNAP is much broader than people who just have an EBT card and receive food stamps.”
To learn more about the work of Together for Hope, visit www.cbf.net/tfh.