Cross-posted with permission from Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity.
Food deserts are an issue across the nation but perhaps nowhere more than the Mississippi Delta, where many impoverished communities lack easy access to healthy food, particularly fruits and vegetables. In Drew, Miss., a community of about 1,500, residents found themselves without a full-service grocery store and limited grocery options — but a group of local residents came together to start an online grocery service that delivers to an easy accessible central location or even to the home for those who need it. Gloria Dickerson, a Drew native who worked as a program officer in Jackson, Miss., for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation before retiring to Drew, helped bring a variety of nonprofit partners together to launch the Mississippi Delta Online Grocery Program which is now being considered for replication in other Delta communities. Dickerson spoke recently with Spotlight; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Give us some of the background on how this idea for an online grocery store got started?
When I retired from the Kellogg Foundation, I moved back to my hometown of Drew, Miss., and opened a nonprofit, We2Gether Creating Change. To start that work, I wanted to know from the people of Drew what they really wanted and needed, knowing it’s an impoverished community where close to 60% of the people live in deep poverty. As we started meeting with people, the local grocery store closed, and many told us, well, we need a grocery store. We don’t have any way to buy food of any kind; the closest store is 15 or 20 miles away now and that’s our number one priority. We’re having to pay people $10 or $20 to drive us to the grocery store, because in Drew, we can’t buy an apple, we can’t buy a banana—we can’t buy anything healthy that’s not fast food.
So, we started talking with HOPE Enterprise Corporation, which has credit unions in a number of these small communities in the Delta, including Drew, and they agreed to help us with the idea of creating some kind of grocery store. We did a market analysis and tried to see what would it take to operate a grocery store that would sustain itself in this community. We talked with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, retailers and wholesalers, and grocery stores that were in small communities and did a lot of analysis and finally realized that most of the wholesalers would not come to Drew because it was too small, and the demographics just weren’t right.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation board came to Drew for a visit, and they also agreed to help. And at about this time, HOPE really came up with the idea that if we can’t get a standing grocery store here, why don’t we try something different? Why don’t we try to do an online grocery where people can order from their homes or come into a central office and place their orders, and then we would pick it up for them? And so that’s what we started working on. We were able to get funding from the Kellogg Foundation and HOPE and the Delta Regional Authority. We were able to set up a facility, buy the refrigerators and freezers and a refrigerated van. Now we are able to go to the grocery store and bring food back to the community.
And the main office for the service is in the city armory?
The National Guard left town and when they left town, they left a building here that they donated to the city of Drew. We identified that as one of our assets in the community that we could use. We got a grant to redo the parking lot, put a new roof on, and redo some of the rooms to make offices.
So, how does that work? If I’m in Drew and I’m ordering, I can order online and I can also come to the armory and do it in person?
Yes. You can come to the armory and order, or you can order online using your computer. If you come to the armory, you can sit down with someone who’s there at the facility that will help you through it step by step. We also provide trainings on how to use the service.
And how often are the deliveries?
The deliveries are daily, really. Usually, people get there to order around 9 a.m. and they can get their delivery the same day.
And you pick it up at the armory?
You pick it up at the armory, unless you do not have transportation, in which case we will actually deliver it to the home.
And for other communities who might want to learn from this, how much staff do you need? You’ve got someone at the armory who’s working with people and one or two drivers?
We have one driver who goes to get the food every day from Walmart, which has been very helpful and responsive. You can order anything that Walmart carries. We have one person who stays in the office and helps people do their orders, or she may go to their homes, as some of our clients don’t have internet. We bought a laptop with cellular service so that we may go to their houses and take their orders.
And can your clients use SNAP or WIC benefits?
They can use SNAP, but Walmart isn’t set up for WIC yet, though they say they are working on it.
And about how many people are you serving at this point?
We’re up to 36 families now. It was slow going at first. In the beginning, even though a lot of people didn’t have a way to get to a grocery store, they were kind of afraid of the technology. They hadn’t been accustomed to ordering online and it took them awhile to get comfortable with it.
What’s your overall budget?
HOPE gave us a contract for about $400,000, and about $100,000 of that was for the equipment and the remainder was to hire staff and buy gas and those kinds of things. We bought the van, we bought the freezers, we bought the coolers. The yearly budget is roughly $150,000, which is mostly used to pay staff and buy gas.
And are people more comfortable using the service now?
They’re a lot more comfortable with it. Most of them are now using it regularly and they love it. It saves a lot of time. It saves money, particularly with gas prices going up. They don’t have to buy the gas and they don’t have to pay a fee. I really like it too because I use it!
Have you had interest from any other communities in the Delta about potentially trying this?
Yes, we have. We’ve had interest from the surrounding communities like Tutwiler, which is just about 25 miles from here and we also had Mound Bayou to ask. Right now, we’re just not able to do that, but we may expand at some point where we will be able to deliver to these other small rural communities that do not have a grocery store as well.