How Do People Living in a Food Desert Feed Themselves Amid a Pandemic?

In Mississippian Richard Wright’s ferocious short story Hunger, an overworked, time-pressed mother sends her young son to the grocery story with a list, a basket and a few dollars. When he returns with no groceries, having been relieved of his money by a gaggle of neighborhood boys, she sends him out again, this time with a stick as a weapon, which he’s forced to use — busting heads, drawing blood and winning the streets. “I flayed with tears in my eyes, teeth clenched, stark fear making me throw every ounce of my strength behind each blow. I hit again and again….”

But in the present moment’s nonfictional reality of West Jackson, Mississippi, an even greater hazard than maneuvering around a few local toughs exists — in the neighborhood of 30,000 residents, there’s no grocery store.

Since the Cash & Carry grocery store relocated from West Jackson to South Jackson two years ago in pursuit of larger square footage and an enlarged customer base, the sole source for purchasing groceries in the neighborhood has been an understaffed, and to hear the local shoppers tell it, sometimes unsanitary, Dollar General store. But on February 27 — the night that members from three neighborhood associations, dozens of homeowners, individual concerned community members and a representative from neighboring Jackson State University’s Office of Engagement for the West Jackson Corridor held an emergency community meeting at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Development — Dollar General, too, had shuttered its doors. The company would be hauling off the last of its fixtures by month’s end.

Cooperation Jackson, a Black economic empowerment and democracy group that’s been enacting its program of generating cooperatively owned businesses based on the Mondragon Principles since May 1, 2014, purchased the strip mall last year, adding it to properties in the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust as a bulwark against gentrification. It is the only strip mall within walking distance of the majority of residents in West Jackson. Two businesses — a thriving neighborhood dance studio and longtime barbershop — remain as renters in the neighborhood-scaled mall where the empty storefronts of the Dollar General and former Cash & Carry await a new infusion of businesses in the cooperative model. Throughout the plaza the walls have been beautified by muralists. The variety of artistic styles, quality of execution, heartfelt imagery and thoughtful messaging both demonstrate solidarity from the arts scene and send a powerful signal of Cooperation Jackson’s intention to catalyze West Jackson into transforming the plaza into a vital, vibrant and vigorous community hub.

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