Fertile Soils, Bare Cupboards: Addressing Food Insecurity in the Mississippi Delta

by Erin Barton
Release Date: 

Project Team in TallahacheeWest Tallahatchie County, Mississippi is part of the highly rural and fertile Delta region. The landscape is dotted with trees and covered in wide, flat expanses of soybeans, corn, cotton, and rice. Much like county name, the area’s beautiful landscape invites you to slow down and take your time.




Lee Taylor-Penn, a U-M graduate student in the School of Public Health and Ford School of Public Policy applied to the Dow Sustainability Fellows program with a keen interest in food and sustainability.

“I had worked a little bit with Keep Growing Detroit… and so I started thinking about, ‘where is there an area where this work isn’t happening but that maybe people want it to happen?’ And I immediately thought of the Mississippi Delta…,” said Taylor-Penn. Having grown up in Grenada County, an hour from Tallahatchie County, she knew firsthand that rural communities in this area need access to fresh produce, grains and other products.

The Delta region is one of the most food-insecure areas in the nation because most agricultural products are exported to various commercial markets. Combined with decades of economic decline driving grocery stores and other businesses elsewhere, residents struggle to get any food, let alone fresh, healthy ingredients.

Recently, Taylor-Penn and four other U-M Dow Sustainability Fellows (Anna Bengtson, Grace Van Velden, Kathleen Carroll, and Sarah Ladin) from the Schools of Public Health, Public Policy, Architecture and Urban Planning, Natural Resources and Environment, Business, Natural Resources, and Law worked in partnership with the West Tallahatchie community. The team engaged community members, including the Emmit Till Interpretive Center, who contributed information about consumer behavior and food availability. This effort informed practical plans to help guide the community towards solutions to develop a food-secure future. 

Building on the recommendations presented by the Dow team near the end of 2016, the Tallahatchie community is now working to form a Food Access Council to guide food security discussions in the area. Three Dow team members plan to continue working with the community in an advisory capacity and would like to see a new Dow team work with the community on the next phase of the initiative. For all the hope, determination, and desire for change in the community, there is still much work to be done in Tallahatchie County and in communities throughout the United States.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Taylor-Penn.

Made possible by The Dow Chemical Company, the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program at the University of Michigan supports full-time graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at the university who are committed to finding interdisciplinary, actionable, and meaningful sustainability solutions on local-to-global scales. The program prepares future sustainability leaders to make a positive difference in organizations worldwide. We believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion are key to individual empowerment, and the advancement of sustainability knowledge, learning, and leadership. See:http://sustainability.umich.edu/dow