/Gloster’s first grocery store in decades highlights statewide food insecurity

Gloster’s first grocery store in decades highlights statewide food insecurity

Gloster, a small rural community in Amite County in southwest Mississippi, is located just south of Homochitto National Forest. It’s less that two miles in area and is home to approximately a thousand people, according to the 2016 American Community Survey. Even though there is minimal competition, companies are afraid that they won’t be able to make enough profit to survive in small towns such as Gloster. This is a common problem in a state with a low population like Mississippi, especially when it concerns access to food. A few weeks back, however, a new arrival arrived in town: a Piggly Wiggly grocery shop, which is owned by an independent company, opened in Gloster just in time for Thanksgiving. This is the town’s first grocery shop in many decades. Felecia Nayland (56), a Gloster resident, said, “We needed it.” I hope and pray they keep doing good business here so that they stay here.” Nayland stated previously that Mississippi had the fourth highest level of food insecurity, according to the federal government’s measure of hunger. According to the latest Hunger Free America report, “The Red, White and Blue Hunger Wave: a 2018 United States Hunger Atlas,” more than half a million Mississippians didn’t know where their next meal would come in 2015 and 2017. Lavonne Sanders (50) has lived in Gloster all her life and says the last time there was a grocery store like this was around 30-40 years ago. It was also a Piggly Wiggly. Sanders stated, “I love this shop, it’s made such a difference.” “We no longer have to travel to Centreville. “You don’t need to spend that gas money now.” Although the store has a Piggly Wiggly license, Jason Cook owns and operates the shop. Cook, a Hattiesburg native, first learned about Gloster while working in a previous position. Although the company had considered expanding into the small community, they decided against it. Cook has since opened a Piggly Wiggly Piggly Wiggly in Angie (La). But he did not forget Gloster. Cook stated, “I came back to Gloster when I was financially able,” because he had spoken with the community and knew how dire it was. The Lord brought us back. “Most businesses will not tolerate a store that sells less than $100,000 per week. My approach is different. I do it to run a business but also because I have compassion and humanity. Cook will be reimbursed for any exterior improvements, such as the sidewalk repair and parking lot. Cook stated that the Piggly Wiggly wouldn’t be open if it weren’t for the community’s support and responsiveness, as well as the financial assistance. 22 people were employed by the store. Cook stated that if you can get to a place where the government will help, then you can succeed. You don’t get greedy and you don’t take advantage people. You just work. I live within my means. I have to make a profit to pay the bills but I don’t want to be a millionaire from it.” Residents had spent years driving far and wide to get fresh produce. The grocery store was bustling by 3 p.m. Monday. Rachel Stevens (54), who works in a Main Street business right around the corner from the new grocery store, said that it has brought life back to the community. Stevens and others discussed the necessity of fitting all their grocery shopping in to just a few trips per month. We’d need to stock up. It can be very frustrating when you run out of things. She said that there was no other choice. Residents believe that the Piggly Wiggly will bring joy to the community and increase its momentum. Bradley Bruce, a Chicagoan, said that the grocery store might be sufficient. He moved to Gloster eight year ago. “I knew it was hyped when people in other counties would say, “Did you see the Piggly Wiggly?” “It’s going to be more changes,” Sanders stated. “I believe.” Cockerham is also an attorney at Wise Carter and serves as Gloster’s lawyer. She said that Piggly Wiggly’s incentives could be used to attract businesses in other parts of Mississippi. She said, “In the future I hope that there will be additional mechanisms that will assist areas like Southwest Mississippi that encourage partnerships (between towns and business),” The role of the Legislature and statewide solutions Statewide solutions Much of the state, or about 1 in 5 according to Hunger Free America, has difficulty accessing nutritious food. This phenomenon can be found in urban areas such as Hinds County where 1 in 4 people are food insecure. However, it can also occur in rural areas such as Jefferson County which, according Feeding America, had the highest level of food insecurity in the country at 36% in 2016. Is the public-private partnership that Gloster created possible in the rest? What can the state Legislature do? Each year, legislators propose legislation that aims to reduce food insecurity. This could be done by helping low-income grocers to minimize losses or making grocery shopping more affordable for the general population. Rep. Jarvis Dortch (D-Jackson) has advocated for tax credits for grocers that are located in underserved areas. These stores would have received a tax credit equivalent to 10 percent of their payroll under a 2018 bill. In an effort to encourage healthier food choices, Rep. David Baria (D-Bay St. Louis) authored a 2018 bill that would have granted income tax credits to grocers in order to offset the cost to purchase locally grown produce. Senator Willie Simmons (D-Cleveland) has introduced bills over the years to allow state funds for direct funding of grocery stores as part of the Small Business and Grocer Investment Act. These bills were all passed without much fanfare and each one died in committee. Simmons stated that his proposal to directly use state money is unlikely to win the support of the leadership. Simmons suggested that tax incentives similar to the ones Mississippi offers large companies such as Continental Tire and Nissan might be more appealing. Mississippi currently offers tax incentives to encourage industries to move to the state. However, these benefits are not available to grocers. Simmons stated that grocers would not be eligible for the same incentives as an industry because of their employees and the wages they are paying. Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the primary federal vehicle to provide food assistance for the poor. It provides monthly allowances that are based on the household size. Mississippi is home to one of the highest federal matching funds for these programs. Simmons stated that Mississippi has relied on the federal government so much to feed the hungry, that it is not a priority for them. “We haven’t stepped up to provide adequate dollars to help those citizens out their particular circumstances… We haven’t had to.” In an attempt to ease the burden of buying groceries in Mississippi, Rep. Jeramey (D-Escatawpa) has repeatedly proposed legislation to eliminate the sales tax on food items for all shoppers. SNAP purchases are exempted from sales tax. The same bill, which was introduced by Robert Johnson (D-Natchez), would have raised all other sales taxes from 7 to 9 percent. Anderson said that eliminating the sales tax on food is the best way to give tax cuts to our constituents, particularly those in the middle or working class. Anderson plans to reintroduce the bill next session. While I understand that there must be a way to make up the revenue lost from groceries taxes, I believe that phasing it out (which this bill does over five year) is a responsible and sustainable way to do that without putting too much pressure on the state’s revenue. The sales tax on groceries is, I believe, one of the most regressive taxes that we have.” Both of these bills died along with several other bills to increase the state minimum wage to $8.25 to $10.10. Mississippians cannot always depend on their jobs to provide food security due to low wages. The “U.S. Hunger Atlas” also shows that nearly 13 percent of working adults, or 156,213 employees, experienced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017. The “U.S. Hunger Atlas” shows that almost 13 percent of adults working, or 156 213 employees, experienced food insecurity between 2015-2017. According to the report, Mississippians would have to spend $273 million more each year to feed their basic nutritional needs. This is roughly one-third of the $841.8 million Mississippi spent through the SNAP program in 2017. Simmons stated that when you are in a difficult situation for too long it becomes a daily routine. “If we do more work at the state level we could become a state that is transforming our people from poverty into prosperity.” Madeline Morcelle, Kathryn Rehner, and the Mississippi Center for Justice promote a variety of solutions to address the root causes of food insecurity. Morcelle stated that in order to make Mississippi food secure, the state legislature must address a wide range of socio-economic and physical barriers that prevent healthy food access. These include poverty which is perpetuated because many people don’t get a living wage. Increasing the minimum wage would increase food security. Tax incentives and other measures that incentivize investment from food retailers are important to me. There is no one solution. It will require a combination state reform that addresses the multitude of factors that lead to food insecurity.