Utica Food Club: Fighting a Food Desert with Community Organizing

Utica Food Club: Fighting a Food Desert with Community Organizing

Access to quality food is crucial to UProot’s highest priorities: obesity and the social determinants of health (SDOH)

After a grocery store left Utica, Mississippi, residents organized to address the fact that their community had become a food desert.

Utica: From agricultural haven to food desert

Since the ’90s, the economy and population of Utica have been declining. Schools and plants closed, ending relationships with the local Sunflower grocery store and leaving fewer people to travel into town as customers. Finally, in 2014, the store closed, turning Utica into a food desert. The nearest grocery store was in Clinton, 30 miles away. 

In 2023, the Mississippi Free Press interviewed Jean Greene of Utica as part of a story on food deserts. When asked about the grocery store closure, she said, “It was an economic decision…  And so the rest of us paid the price for that economic decision.” 

Though the grocery store’s closure was the final step to becoming a food desert, it was a shock to long-time Utica residents. Like many towns in Mississippi, Utica has a long history of food production and agricultural education. 

Last century, Utica was home to the Utica Institute, founded in 1903 by William H. Holtzclaw, an agriculturalist whose mentor was Booker T. Washington. 

Holtzclaw sought to educate African Americans in Mississippi’s “Black Belt” by replicating the Tuskegee educational experience.

The Utica Institute became Utica Junior College, which merged with Hinds Community College in 1982. Until 2014, the town hosted the Hinds County Agricultural High School, part of the Hinds Community College system.

Utica only has a population of around 600. The town didn’t think a large grocer would be willing to come, so they investigated some alternatives.

The town organizes

Enter Sipp Culture, a group founded in Utica to use arts and culture to help the town solve its food crisis. They partnered with the municipal government and started a farm, a community garden, and a farmer’s market.

That was only their first step. They found another partner, the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, and launched a program to support rural artists. This action earned them a large grant from One Nation/One Project, an organization that leverages the arts to create healthier people and communities.

“Sipp Culture believes that gathering and sharing local stories is the best way to support safe and thriving communities for the future.”

How did the community come together and start this project?

First, they gathered the community and listened. As demonstrated by Operation Shoestring, listening to the community is vital for any effort towards improving SDOH. Sipp Culture needed to see what the community wanted to do. They made sure that representatives from the culture, agriculture, business, education, and local government sectors were on hand when they held community meetings. 

Using those tools, they determined where people were shopping, and what drove their decision to do so. They discovered that people were driving up to an hour just to buy fresh meat and produce.

They then researched models for alternatives to big grocers. Many of the future members of the Utica Food Club had known of or done business with a cooperative grocery in Jackson. Others had used farmer’s markets and community gardens.

Then, they identified the items that people wanted to purchase in bulk. They focused on staple foods, which are easily transported and stored without refrigeration.

Next, they identified vendors who would sell them, and began the task of figuring out where these staple items – and harder-to-store things that would require refrigeration, could be housed. The storage question was helped by their partnership with the municipality, which knew what buildings were suitable for the project – and available.

After that, the group began to exchange information and ideas. They discussed strategies and techniques for storing and transporting food, preserving it and making bulk purchases. They coordinated those purchases, becoming a food-buying club. Food buying clubs are a way for individuals to purchase food at wholesale prices, and then split the purchases up, circumventing a traditional grocer.

While the buying club, farmer’s market, and community garden have all helped to address the food desert in Utica, there is much more to be done. For now, Sipp Culture and the Utica Food Club are researching more and seeking financial and educational support from the FDA, the USDA, and co-op support organizations. Their partnership with One Nation/One Project and the artists supported by Sipp Culture’s Rural Performance Production Lab have shown them the power of these relationships, and now they are seeking out local churches to recruit volunteers and further support.

In 2023, Sipp Culture hosted the international musical youth of OneBeat.

lessons for your community

The lessons learned from the Utica Food Club echo those of the ARK and Operation Shoestring: Teamwork and homework.

Listen to the community.

Identify partners.

Do the research.

Find a model you can emulate.

Every step was driven by community education and the equal exchange of information. Food deserts are a crisis in Mississippi, one that many UProot partners attempt to address.

If you know of someone out there who is working hard to make Mississippi a healthier place, let us know!

Operation Shoestring: Better Health through Listening

Operation Shoestring: Better Health through Listening

Nutrition, exercise, and mental health are critical when it comes to improving the health of your community.

Sometimes, finding a place to safely exercise can be hard. In 1968, this was the call to action for Operation Shoestring when local organizers wanted safe playgrounds in Jackson.

These days, Operation Shoestring is primarily known for quality after-school and summer programs for children in the neighborhoods of central Jackson. True to their history, the organization continues listening to community families for ways to help the community.

A Community Space for Connection

In addition to programming for children, Operation Shoestring offers workshops for parents. Parent programs began as a natural outgrowth of after-school activities. Organizers listened to the concerns of the parents while bringing or picking up their children and began tailoring programs to meet them.

These parents were able to guide the content of the parental workshops. Among other topics, they mentioned challenges that are familiar to public health professionals. Good food is expensive. Jobs and life leave little time for exercise. Safe places to exercise are unavailable. People need places where they can speak openly about mental health. 

“These parents are well aware of the challenges in their community,” said Alexandra Melnick, communications director at Operation Shoestring.

Parents wanted to learn ways to help handle these difficulties. They started a healthy eating workshop, which led to exercise classes, and even cooking classes where parents were offered squash, sweet potatoes, and other produce.

Qula Madkin, a registered dietitian and nutritionist teaching a healthy eating class, noted the parents’ desire to learn more. “There’s a barrier to information and how it is distributed,” Madkin said in 2023.

we all rise together

Healthy meal being prepared in a cooking class

At a class on healthy eating, parents get more than recipes: they also get fresh produce, kitchen essentials, and on-site child care.

Just as important, they get to cook, exercise, or talk together.

“Our classes are more than just a dump of information; what they need is a supportive environment,” Melnick said.

A community amplifies individual choices. When parents have a healthy diet and habits, they teach them to children. When parents try new exercises in front of others, the rest of the class learns when someone identifies what works for them.

“It lets the parents rethink their relationship with health,” Melnick said.

After all, the motto at Operation Shoestring is “We all rise together.”

Community Education Tips


If you want to support Operation Shoestring, you can. They rely 100% on the financial support of generous donors and partners. Check out their Twitter and Facebook pages, as well.

Find out how to support them here.

Have a success story of your own, or know of one? Contact us to help share the good news.

The ARK in Jackson: Bringing More Than Just Fitness

The ARK in Jackson: Bringing More Than Just Fitness

Exercise is a crucial part of the fight against obesity in Mississippi. But for many, finding a place to exercise is difficult. Challenges finding places to exercise in one’s community is a clear example of a social determinant of health.

Creating a healthy space is one of many reasons why New Horizon Church in Jackson opened The Ark in October. The Ark is in the vein of YMCA: more than just a gym, it’s a place for empowering people through sports and fitness. The Ark also offers a broad spectrum of education about more topics than just health. To help their community get healthy, the Ark provides multiple basketball courts, a climbing wall, spaces for weight training, cardio equipment, and meeting rooms.

Training equipment at The Arc

As we discussed in early November, exercise is vital not just for preventing diabetes and obesity, but for managing them as well. It also has myriad benefits for other aspects of health, including balance, mobility, and mental health.

But the Ark is about more than just exercise. “Come here and dream again,” is what Dr. Adrianne L. Swinney, Executive Director, said of The Ark. “We want it to be inspiring. Visions do matter.”

Art by Derek Perkins in one of the public spaces at The Ark

Seven years ago, the Ark was a shuttered Sams warehouse that the local community had been trying to find a use for.

As part of that community, New Horizon Ministries was in a good position to help turn the old warehouse into something new and vibrant. Representative Ronnie Crudup, Jr., the Executive Director of New Horizon Ministries, worked with the ministry and the local community so that the ministry could purchase the warehouse, and transform it into the Ark.

The space and the staff currently focus on youth basketball, with three basketball courts and three basketball development specialists under the guidance of Coach Charles Lewis. The coaching team teaches children and keeps them active, instilling values and habits that can help them be healthier and happier for life. They also manage a community basketball league for youth and adults.

Basketball courts at The Ark

We asked Dr. Swinney what she would say to any community that wanted to achieve something similar in their neighborhood. “Start with a vision. Write it down, research it, identify those who want to help make it happen by investing in the vision, and find a location. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get started. We started with one basketball court.” Dr. Swinney said.

And now there are three, with plans for expansion. They aim to provide more space, more events, and new facilities for different sports that kids might not otherwise be exposed to.

We’re proud to spotlight The Ark as an example of how community organizations can create better health in our state. Be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates on their work!

Have a success story of your own? Send it to us! Contact us to get started.

3 Ways to Build a Healthier Mississippi

3 Ways to Build a Healthier Mississippi

UProot was developed to spark new ideas and opportunities to improve our state’s health. Read on for ways to connect to the great work happening to improve our state’s health. 

Read the State Health Improvement Plan

Developed using feedback from more than 19,000 residents, public health professionals, and community partners across the state, the State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) is a great place to start when looking to build a healthier state. 

It breaks down the cause and prevalence of Mississippi’s most pressing health issues, and contains actionable next steps employers, residents, educators, health-care professionals, faith-based organizations, and public health professionals can use to put the plan into action. 

Here’s an example for community residents: 

  1. Notice what chronic diseases (obesity, for example) are impacting your town or community. 
  2. Check the SHIP for tips on how to improve this health issue. In this example, you could help lower obesity rates by improving food access (volunteering at a food pantry, donating to organizations that provide food to those who are low-income or on disability, or starting a neighborhood food drive or community garden). 
  3. Spread the word. Get more people involved in improving this issue to help grow more solutions for a healthier Mississippi. 

Keep in mind that simply sharing, supporting, and lifting up healthy behaviors for friends and family members can have a big positive impact on our state’s health as well! Check out our resource directory to learn more about chronic diseases in your area and connect to free health management classes to boost wellness.

Join an UProot Work Group

For organizations looking to make a difference, joining one of UProot’s work groups is a great first step. Work groups meet on a monthly basis to track progress and develop new strategies for improving our state’s health. Priorities are based on the SHIP and are represented in the following focus areas: 

Social Determinants of Health contribute to health disparities across the state, and can have a major impact on the prevalence of chronic diseases. By joining in this work, your organization can take action to improve the environmental conditions of Mississippians, including people of color, tribal members, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Click here for a breakdown of this priority.

There’s also work being done specifically to lower obesity rates that your organization can take part in. Since obesity is a root cause for most chronic illnesses, it is a very important issue to address at both local and state levels. Improving obesity rates alone could save Mississippi over $13 billion annually in unnecessary health care costs. 

With three specific focus areas, we’re able to develop a more holistic approach to building better behaviors and lowering obesity rates. Click here to learn more about this priority and its focus areas.

See a workgroup that seems like the perfect fit for your organization? Click here to join! 

Share the Wins

Whether you’re a community organization or community leader, resident or public health advocate, always share the wins! Send us the health projects or events happening in your area, and we’ll amplify them to help spread the word and inspire others to grow a healthier Mississippi. 
If you already have a story ready to share with us, click here to send it to us!

<strong>Q&A with Dr. Kina White</strong>

Q&A with Dr. Kina White

Headshot photo of Dr. Kina White
Dr. Kina White, Director of the Office of Community Health Improvement (OCHI) at the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH)

The Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) was recently awarded Age-Friendly Public Health Systems recognition by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH). We spoke with Dr. Kina White, Director of the Office of Community Health Improvement (OCHI) at MSDH, to talk about this great achievement and learn more about efforts to make Mississippi a more age-friendly state. Read on to see what Dr. White had to share!

What is healthy aging?

If we use the World Health Organization’s definition, healthy aging is defined as the “process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”. It enables people to be and do what they value throughout their everyday lives. 

Something that’s very important to consider when we think about healthy aging is that we’re all aging. I think that there’s this misperception that healthy aging is only applicable to older adults and it is not. The goal is for all of us to healthily age in our communities. 

How is MSDH working to make Mississippi more age-friendly?

Through collaboration with Trust for America’s Health, the Mississippi State Department of Health is working to advance an age-friendly ecosystem in Mississippi. The state department has adopted Trust for America’s Health’s 6 C’s framework for creating age-friendly public health systems and is using this framework to guide its work in this regard. 

The “6 C’s Framework” outlined by TFAH centers on advancing health equity when developing age-friendly public health systems. Right now, we’re working to support a local university to pursue the age-friendly university designation and we’re also helping employers take on more age-friendly practices in the workplace. So with this ecosystem, Mississippi is on a path to becoming an age-friendly state where we can create a healthy community that respects all persons so that we can all healthily age. 

What resources indicate that a community supports healthy aging? 

There are a number of resources to indicate that a community supports healthy aging. Affordable and reliable transportation is often one the greatest community needs. If a community is able to provide transport services for older adults–whether through a community-based van service or non-emergent medical transportation–then that community is supporting healthy aging in this capacity. Proper infrastructure, like walkable sidewalks, is another example.

Another example would be adequate training for service staff–like grocery store workers or cashiers. If those staff are effectively trained to work with older adults, who may have a language barrier or communication issue, then those customers would not feel stigmatized or ashamed that their communication needs may be different from someone else’s. 

It’s really about creating an environment where individuals can live and thrive and not have to relocate because the support services are not there. And it does require an elevated level of planning, communicating, and coordinating with individuals. There is also a policy element. There has to be a need for policy change in these communities to ensure that transportation or infrastructure-related policies are in place to create those community van services and safe sidewalks.

And so this work happens on multiple levels–a policy level, or it could be a systems level–or it could be an environmental level–but that work is ultimately necessary to building age-friendly communities within our state.

In your opinion, what does it mean to create a culture of health?

For me, a culture of health is one that is equitable and where all persons, all collective individuals and organizations are respective of differences and similarities. Without equity, that culture, in my opinion, is not well established or sustained.

What projects are you excited about? 

We have a new initiative called “Health Aging Champions”. It’s a volunteer-based program where older adults can volunteer to support our effort to become more age friendly as a state. 

Volunteers can help us learn what local communities need and how to best offer age-friendly services. This project also gives our older adults a voice at the table for a change, which is really exciting.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

We are proud to do this work and support all of our Mississippians as we age! I think this will be yet another great opportunity for collaboration in our state for sure. 

For more information, reach out to Dr. Kina White at kina.white@msdh.ms.gov

Responses edited for brevity and clarity. Views expressed in interviews published on this site are solely those of the interviewees.

<strong>Addressing Food Insecurity in the Nation’s ‘Hungriest State’</strong>

Addressing Food Insecurity in the Nation’s ‘Hungriest State’

On April 4, our team, along with one of our Battling Obesity workgroups attended the Mississippi Food Network Conference to learn more about local efforts to eliminate one of our state’s most pressing issues: food insecurity. 

At the county level, Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation and has been considered as the most food insecure state in the country by Feeding America for nearly a decade.

1 in 4 Mississippians deal with food insecurity, and it is a disparity that has been shown to put people at higher risk for obesity and chronic disease. And, although it may seem like a one-problem-one-solution issue, it actually requires a more holistic approach. 

Food insecurity is caused by a number of factors, or social determinants of health, such as income, transportation access, and local food availability. It’s also caused by food deserts–which, unfortunately, are very common in Mississippi. 

Food deserts are communities that have limited access to healthy, affordable foods. When identifying whether or not a community is a food desert, distance plays a key role. Residents must live between 1 and 10 miles from their nearest supermarket in order to have adequate access to food. But, in areas like the Mississippi Delta, where nearly 20% of the state’s population resides, residents have access to just one food market per 190.5 square miles. There is also store inventory to consider; as one participant of our community listening sessions noted, “most stores do not have enough variety of healthy food.” 

When people aren’t able to access fresh, healthy food–either because of distance or lack of availability–they may turn to eating at fast food places or restaurants as an alternative. This is how food insecurity leads to poor nutrition and adverse health outcomes like obesity. 

Our plan is to reduce food insecurity by 10% in the next five years by increasing food access and eliminating food deserts across the state. We’re proud to work with organizations like the Mississippi Food Network to strengthen our efforts and raise awareness around the importance of ending food insecurity. 

Click here to learn more about the latest State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) and how you can help improve our state’s health. Then, show us how you’re bettering community health by sending us your success story! Visit https://uprootms.org/contact to get started.

FAT to Fit Olympic Games Makes Health Fun

FAT to Fit Olympic Games Makes Health Fun

In 2004, Jefferson County was reported as the most obese county in America. In 2010, Janell and Anthony Edwards attended the Global Obesity Summit in Jackson, and they realized that something needed to be done in terms of improving public health in Mississippi, starting in their community of Jefferson County. That same year, they created the FAT to Fit Olympic Games.

This past year, the Fayette Community Service Organization (FCSO) held its 9th Annual FAT to Fit Olympics Games on July 19 and 20 at Alcorn State. The FAT to Fit Olympic Games consists of many field day games, ranging from 3-on-3 basketball to tug of war, and they have recently added a qualifying event in other counties for four of the tournament games. Winners of all of the games receive a bike or a cash prize. All participants also go through a free health screening.

“Our mission is to foster health and wealth among young men and women, including youth, by empowering service and guidance. Our vision is to create healthier and wealthier communities in Mississippi by turning a negative that has plagued our state for so many years into a positive,” says Janell Edwards.

To date, the Fayette Community Services Organization has conducted over 15,789 free health screenings, and has awarded over 1000 new bicycles and over $4000 in cash and healthcare products. Their goal for the 2020 event is to have a total of five counties participate, and they hope to reach even more counties. 

One of the most helpful people in their journey has been Dr. Olu T. Ekundayo, who helped them realize the importance of getting clean data. 

“When you get the data on somebody’s blood pressure, it comes from a hospital where they have a blood pressure issue. So, we had an event where you’re at the best health possible, and we’re getting those real numbers. You get clean data — you’re not getting sick data,” says Anthony Edwards.

FAT to Fit Olympic Games outgrew both their locations at the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors facility and the local junior high gymnasium in Fayette, and when they realized they were going to be expanding into multiple counties and attracting more people, they decided to partner with Alcorn State and use their larger facilities. 

“We are dedicated to be a part of the solution. We are the inspiration for the nation fighting obesity. We want FAT to Fit to go nationwide. We’ve had participants from thirteen different Mississippi counties and five U.S. states. It will be based in health and people just coming out to have fun,” says Janell Edwards. 

FCSO is also involved in other projects that work to create a culture of health and help lessen the high rates of obesity in our state:

The Fitness is Fun – Community Health Engagement Awareness Program (FIF-CHEAP) implements community engagement activities in targeted counties to increase health knowledge. They provide community meetings, live radio talk segments, and live social media prize campaigns to foster deeper understandings of obesity risk factors and its correlation to social and lifestyle factors, while also promoting obesity prevention and treatment strategies. 

The Healthy Intervention Project Community (HIP-C) tracks the health of 3rd-6th graders with annual health screenings up until their senior year of high school. They have been doing this program for seven years, and their first class of students just graduated. The goal for this project is to establish health consciousness in young children.

The Community Garden in Fayette, MS will open in March 2020 and includes a pond, a walking trail, and a garden. The garden will also have a classroom style demo set up, and through partnerships with MSU Extension and Alcorn State Extension, they will offer gardening classes on site. 

Health Radio Segments – FCSO will have segments on their local radio with healthy advice and recipes in hopes of expanding health literacy throughout the community. This project is funded by the Mississippi State Department of Health. 

Learn more about the Fayette Community Service Organization on their Facebook


Walking Together to a Healthier Future with Linda Fondren

Walking Together to a Healthier Future with Linda Fondren

“Linda, I wish I’d lived my life more for myself.”

That’s what Linda Fondren, founder of ShapeUp Mississippi in Vicksburg, Mississippi, said her fifty-four-year-old sister told her before she’d died of brain cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had made her sister regretful, Fondren said; it was the obesity. Because of her weight, her sister couldn’t move around as much; it was her heaviness that’d truly physically restricted her, not her illness.

Six months after her sister’s passing, Fondren opened her women’s-only gym, Shape Up Sisters, for women like her sister, who wanted to work out and lose weight and didn’t know how. Her listening ear and dedication to transformation created waves of change that have given not only her but also the City of Vicksburg national attention for their efforts.

Her sister wasn’t the only thing that spurred Fondren to action. The Vicksburg native was fed up with the stereotype: Mississippi being first in everything bad, and last in everything good.

“Growing up in a state with a legacy of poverty, over-the-top obesity rates, so many other things we can name, and also having family members who passed away from obesity-related issues, I became determined to educate others about exercise and eating well with an emphasis on community support as a key to long-term solutions,” she said. “Those people who have passed on, they couldn’t take a step for themselves. I figure we as a community should take a step for them to succeed.”

Since starting her work, Fondren has helped her community lose over 15,000 pounds in a community challenge. She helped turn Vicksburg National Military Park into a forum of health and discourse, where citizens can take exercise walks while simultaneously participating in facilitated dialogue about the park’s history. The City of Vicksburg as a whole has made serious progress since Fondren and other likeminded individuals mobilized the community to focus on their health; this year, Vicksburg was among 200 communities nationwide who won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize for demonstrating “unwavering efforts to ensure all residents have the opportunity to live healthier lives.”

Fondren says nothing she does would be successful if she didn’t listen to the community about their needs. “Health means so much more than simply not being sick. Health could be a mom wanting a safe place for her children to go outside and play. Some just want a grocery store close in their neighborhoods. Some just want to be able to play outside without listening to gunshots.”

Thanks to Fondren’s influence, more walking trails have been added in the city. Every time one’s finished, Fondren plans a group walk there to bring awareness to it.
“If you’re not celebrating your successes, how will people know?” she said. “This is how we have city pride.

I like creating change. I like to get together and try to find solutions and figure out what role can people play. When you get together, and you can do that and you’re talking to people, people start asking: ‘What can I do? How can I serve?’ And when we get together, we come up with solutions on how thing can happen.”

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Linda’s Tips on How to Build a Healthier Community