For eight consecutive years, Mississippi has had the highest rate of food insecurity in the country. Even in normal circumstances, where local farmers sell produce for reduced rates through cross sector partnerships and food pantries work to alleviate food insecurity, one in five residents along the Mississippi Gulf Coast still struggles with hunger. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging communities across the nation, resulting in upwards of 26 million Americans losing their jobs, even those who aren’t typically at risk of undernourishment in Mississippi are have begun to seek food assistance.
Despite the health and safety concerns raised by the virus, Mississippi Public Health Institute (MSPHI) has continued its collaboration with community partners such as Feeding the Gold Coast (FGC) to ensure families can still access healthy foods and that health equity gaps don’t widen further amid the pandemic.
“Our service area is experiencing an influx of need from those impacted by COVID-19,” said Dan Emery, newly appointed president and CEO for Feeding the Gulf Coast. “School closures and local job layoffs are leading to an unprecedented need for those who typically may not experience food insecurity. While those that struggle daily are now in an even more critical situation, compounded by the economic stress the COVID-19 virus has created in our communities.”
Initially, MSPHI and FGC thought they might have to cancel their food distribution in early April, which just so happened to be planned for the day after Mississippi Governor Tate Reeve’s statewide shelter in place order was scheduled to go into effect. Instead, MSPHI and FGC called on additional partners, which helped them design and manage a safe environment for food pickup.
With the help of community volunteers, MSPHI and FGC were able to provide 500 families with boxes of dry goods and fresh produce. Donations came from AT&T, the Walmart Foundation and United Way of South Mississippi. Rouse Market, a local grocer, donated bags so the goods could be pre-packaged and easily distributed in a drive-through setting, minimizing contact for service workers, volunteers, and recipients. Donning masks and gloves, volunteers efficiently loaded vehicles and safely moved people through during a scheduled three-hour pick-up window. While the pandemic is taking its toll on service providers doing their best to meet the increased demand amidst the new challenges presented by COVID-19, Jacinda Roach, program director for the MSPHI’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health effort funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wants fellow public health workers to remember how important their work is to the communities they care for, and that they are making a difference.
Like the clients her agency serves, she is worried about her family’s health and safety—her father is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But despite her very real fears, Jacinda remains optimistic. “This too shall pass,” she says. “Current practices, such as social distancing will allow us to be together again soon. In the meantime, we should use this time to stop and truly reflect upon our world and the importance of public health practice.”
MSPHI’s mission is to protect and improve the well-being of Mississippians. They focus on cultivating partnerships aimed at program innovation, health resources, education, applied research and policy development.