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Heading to Mississippi

This week I head to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. It will be my first trip to Mississippi.

This year the Symposium, “explores the Pop South. Charles Reagan Wilson explains the relationship between the South and pop culture this way: Popular culture is mass produced. It connects tradition and modernity and produces common symbols and icons that represent the region. SFA looks closely at these pop themes and symbols and asks questions about performance and authenticity.”

It is a multi-day gathering and celebration of some of the leading chefs, brewers, food policy analysts, folklorists, and writers of the region. The Southern Foodways Alliance states that they document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of a changing South. 

As I have prepared for the trip in recent weeks, I’ve given much thought to the 7,000-plus square mile Mississippi Delta region which abuts Oxford, the host to the conference, and through which we will drive as we travel down from Memphis.

The Delta is a region of persistent poverty, hunger, and poor healthcare. It is also a region with remarkable agriculture. The land that hosts some of the hungriest people in America is also some of the most abundant.

As I’ve considered how that might be, I’ve also found my mind drifting to Eastern North Carolina.

It might be easy for us to say, “Well, we’re not Mississippi.”

After all, Mississippi features a child poverty rate of 35 percent and one in five Mississippi residents of every age bracket are food insecure. 

But what of Eastern North Carolina?

If Eastern North Carolina were a stand alone state, it would be the 36th most populous in the country. 

Yet of the 41 counties that make-up Eastern North Carolina, 10 of them are persistently poor per the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau reports that among Bertie, Bladen, Columbus, Halifax, Martin, Northampton, Pitt, Robeson, Tyrell, and Washington Counties more than 20 percent of their population have lived in poverty for decades. 

The 2012 Gallup Gallup/Food Research and Action Center study, “Food Hardship in America” reported that the North Carolina First Congressional District, which is almost entirely in Eastern North Carolina, was the nation’s hungriest. 

In other words, a few miles down the road from the relative prosperity of the Triangle, we have a region with more than a passing resemblance to the Mississippi Delta.

Acre after acre of abundant agriculture. A rich culinary history. A tradition rich with importance to the entire South. Yet both regions lead in many of the wrong categories — illiteracy, hunger, child poverty, teenage births, life expectancy.

How could this have happened?

The underlying factors that brought each region to where they are today are complex. They involve issues of race, class, and even historical trauma.

Persistent poverty is dangerous for many reasons. Persistent poverty is like a virus that attacks what MDC, and others, call the infrastructure of opportunity. 

It weakens our schools as they combat the challenges of funding, teacher recruitment and retention, and more.

It causes depopulation. Since 1940, the Mississippi Delta has lost half of its population. Similar trends are underway in rural North Carolina.

Intensely poor and rural regions face doctor shortages and hospital closures, while the health indicators — including obesity, lifespan, smoking rates — are all headed in the wrong direction.

These factors contribute to cynicism as well. They can cause hope and optimism to dry up.

Anita Brown-Graham, the executive director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, has spoken of mediating a listening session in a rural community in Eastern North Carolina regarding the future of the community. After her opening, which she hoped they would find inspiring, an older lady stood up and said something to the effect of, “Honey, this town will be the same twenty years from now as it is today, which is pretty much the same as it was forty years ago.”

The solutions for each region will be equally complex and require us all to pay attention. After all, we’re all in this life together. At an event I recently attended, we were reminded that if your boat is sinking, it doesn’t really matter where the leak is coming from.

I understand that if you were from the region, it is probably frustrating to hear a chorus of voices reminding you of where you stand without offering solutions or rolling up their sleeves and working alongside the residents to create change. My hope is that our work at EdNC, and this upcoming trip to Mississippi, will help spotlight solutions, everyday heroes doing incredible work, and showcase the inspirational work happening throughout the South.

The Delta is the home of William Faulkner, Fannie Lou Hamer, and B.B. King. It has an incredible culinary tradition — including the tamales of Greenville, Mississippi. It has plenty of reasons to be proud.

Eastern North Carolina has so much to be proud of us as well. Few could deny the beauty of an early morning drive in the eastern portion of our state, the sun cresting over the trees and casting light over acre after acre of rolling fields.

Each region has remarkable people working tirelessly on behalf of others. Millions of residents who share the same hopes and dreams as each of us. Children who deserve the same opportunity as those born a few hundred miles away. Rich farmland that could be the source of renewal as we pay closer attention to our food system.


Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.