Anna Wolfe currently works at Mississippi Today, an online, non profit news site, where she covers poverty and economic justice. Wolfe is also a fellow of the Health Coverage Fellowship sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
Previously, Wolfe was the Health Watchdog Reporter for Mississippi's statewide newspaper Clarion Ledger where she wrote about issues impacting folks' health and access to health care in a state with the most poverty and the poorest health outcomes in the country. During this time, Wolfe received the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism from the Mississippi Press Association. Wolfe has also served as the Jackson city reporter, during which she won awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Mississippi/Louisiana APME.
She graduated from Mississippi State University in 2014 and is a native of Tacoma, Washington.
Dolecia Cody unloaded her groceries, bought with all the food stamps she'll get this month, into the refrigerator and cabinets at her aunt's house where she's living temporarily.
Cody, 29, had gone to a grocery store for the first time in six months.
Her 2-year-old Jakayla, the curly haired, hazel-eyed middle child of three, danced in front of the fridge, munching on a banana. When she finished one, she asked for another. The toddler loves fruits and vegetables — she's known to pull a turnip out of the ground and "eat it like it's an apple," Cody said.
But lately, they've been on a diet of Ramen noodles and canned ravioli. Cody herself goes without food roughly twice a week.
"If it's not enough, it's just not enough, and I just don't eat that day," Cody said.
She's not alone: more than 6,000 of the residents in Holmes County where she lives are "food insecure" — they lack access to the amount and type of food to keep them healthy and active, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Cody's story of struggle is also that of the colorful local politician, the farmers navigating the 21st century, the doctors at the county hospital and even the senior class president who knows that food habits die hard.
They're connected by the problem of food scarcity and its consequences — despite the vast, fertile land just under their feet.
Cody grew up in Tchula, in a mobile home just a couple blocks from her aunt's, surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the country. When her mom died in 2015, and then her father in March, she and her brother inherited the house.
With no work — it's been hard to keep a job because her daughter has a medical condition requiring special attention — and her brother also struggling to help pay bills or buy groceries, things started falling apart.
Cody stopped paying the water bill first, and with it went her ability to cook. It wasn't until she couldn't pay the light bill, rendering the refrigerator useless, that she decided to abandon the house two months ago. She's been bouncing from place to place since.
"My body literally trained itself not to eat," Cody said, and not in the last couple months, but since she's been an adult and mother living in one of the most poverty-stricken places in Mississippi.
Almost half of the residents in Holmes County, named for David Holmes, Mississippi's first governor, live in poverty with a median household income of $20,700.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 2016 wage calculator, a livable wage for a family of four in Mississippi is nearly $62,000 — 165 hours of minimum wage work each week — while anything less than $22,880 would put that family in poverty.
Because Jakayla is disabled — she was born with a broken hip, a broken ankle and a clef lip that resulted in a hole in her mouth that sometimes catches food — getting work is almost impossible for Cody. Family members and day-care facilities are too scared to watch after her toddler, Cody said, fearing she'll choke while under their supervision.
Across Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the Delta, more than two-thirds of the 50,885 families receiving food assistance have someone in the household who is employed.
In Holmes County, unemployment has dropped significantly since the height of the recession but remains a problem in an area built on a plantation economy, abandoned by industry and offering too few options for work. In July, its unemployment rate was nearly double the state's 6 percent.
Without a car or transportation, Cody has been shopping at the Dollar General down the street, where she can buy chicken, canned foods, noodles and the closest thing to fruit — syrup-infused fruit cocktail.
There are just four grocery stores in the 765-square-mile county, in four towns: the county seat of Lexington, Tchula, Durant and Pickens, leaving the 1,300 people living in Goodman without one in town.
One in four Holmes County residents must travel more than 10 miles for fresh foods.
More than one-third of those folks don't have a car in their household, according to federal data from 2010, the latest available, and public transportation in rural Delta is nonexistent.
Cody prefers the larger stores outside the county, like Walmart and Save-A-Lot, anyway. On the first Wednesday morning in September, Cody was able to get her aunt, who uses her son's car, to drive her 25 miles to Greenwood's supercenters.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture food access study found that among food stamp recipients who don't have cars across the country, more than half rely on friends or family with cars for grocery shopping as opposed to walking, biking or, where available, public transportation.
The study also found that most people don't shop at the store closest to them — indicating sensitivity to price and quality — and that folks who get rides from others are more likely to travel further distances.
It takes a lot of things happening right for Cody to get to a supermarket, so she's likely to buy a whole month's worth of food when she can. And then there's the issue of shelf life.
At Walmart, with $511 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — a $200 increase on what she had received in months and years past — she bought lettuce, strawberries, bananas, onions, meats, noodles, yogurt, crackers, tortillas, chips, frozen pancakes, fish sticks, soda, Powerade, Hawaiian Punch and other packaged and processed foods laden with salt and other preservatives linked to health problems. She skipped out on the green veggies, saying they didn't seem fresh.
Her haul will last the household three weeks, she said. Operating like its own economy, Cody's SNAP will also feed her cousin and aunt, who is disabled and on fixed income, in exchange for providing her a place to stay.
There are lots of reasons Cody and many of her neighbors often don't know where their next meal is coming from. Food insecurity can't be pinned down to one factor — food deserts, for example.
Having a grocery store nearby does little good if a person doesn't have a refrigerator to store fresh food or running water to cook. The cheapest refrigerator at Sears, the closest of which is in Greenwood, costs $449. It would take more than 60 hours earning minimum wage work to afford one, not accounting for any other bills.
"Access is critical," said Leslie Hossfeld, director of Mississippi State University's Food Insecurity Project. "But then there's the knowledge shift about what to eat and how to prepare it and having access to tools to prepare it."
In that way food insecurity is most strongly linked to the rate of poverty — a similarly complex issue.
The state with the most poverty in the nation, Mississippi also has the highest rate of food insecurity of any state. Holmes is one of five counties in the state where more than one-third of people are food insecure, according to Feeding America's latest study from 2015.
Those counties are all also predominantly — between 74 and 86 percent — African-American, illustrating the intersection of food insecurity and the state's racist history of limiting education for black Mississippians, leaving whole populations mired in a cycle of poverty that few escape.
Food insecurity is, in simple terms, the federal government's measurement of hunger, but it doesn't usually signify the kind of malnutrition seen in some developing countries.
The food insecurity survey includes questions like, "How often have you skipped meals because there wasn't enough money for food?" and "How often do you run out of food and lack money to buy more?"
Antoinette Spann, another young mother in the county, talks about skipping meals as nonchalantly as someone might describe failing to take out the trash or check the mail.
"If we know we have a minute before our food stamps (are) back, we'll skip a meal or two in order to save those packs of meat to make it over to the next month," she said, sitting on a folding chair outside her mother's mobile home among acres of soybean plants grown by a man who rents the land from her family.
Sometimes when Cody's fridge is empty, she'll call Eddie Carthan, preacher, county supervisor and Tchula's first black mayor, for something to eat.
It's not uncommon for the Carthans to hear a knock at the door of their large and crumbling white columned mansion and be greeted with someone from their neighborhood, their church or across town, just hoping to get a bite.
Eddie Carthan's wife, Shirley Carthan, will fix them a plate or a care package and even keeps food around the house to give out, giving credence to Mississippi's nickname, "the hospitality state."
"They don't have enough money to make it through the month," Shirley Carthan said.
Three-fourths of folks in Holmes County are eligible for food stamps, but that doesn't mean they're all accessing the program. Even then, there's a hitch.
"Most of the people who get SNAP, it's so unfortunate, they give them SNAP and they don't have any money to pay their bills and they have to figure out how to get the money," Shirley Carthan said. "There's going to be a shortage of food because they have to flip it over (sell) to try to pay the bills, and the government sets them up for failure and fraud because you give them all this money for food and nothing to sustain them to pay their bills and get them through the month … What do you expect? People are going to figure out how to survive."
SNAP, described by Hossfeld as one of the federal government's most successful programs, assists nearly one in five Mississippians. In May, President Donald Trump's administration released a budget that would cut $190 billion to SNAP over the next decade, following attempts from other Republican leaders to limit the program.
In 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant declined to extend a work waiver to unemployed adults receiving SNAP, cutting assistance to roughly 50,000 across the state. His spokesperson said that the state's employment security agency could help people find jobs.
On the Mississippi Works website search tool, two jobs appear within 10 miles of Tchula, both for registered nurse positions in Belzoni.
On top of that, more than 98.5 percent of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants were denied benefits in Mississippi last year, giving the state the highest denial rate in the nation.
All while some local folks "just come up short," as Shirley Carthan puts it, $93 million is generated annually across the county from crops grown there, according to 2012 data from the department of agriculture, the latest available.
Holmes County sits on the east edge of the Mississippi Delta, known for having some of the world's most fertile soil from the rich sediments deposited there by the Mississippi River.
It's also where one of the state's wealthiest citizens, Jim Barksdale, owns a cattle ranch, one of the largest herds of the top-quality Limousin cattle in the Southeast.
But most of what grows there isn't for eating. Soybeans and corn, mostly cattle feed, and cotton make up 85 percent of crop sales in the county.
Sales from vegetables don't even register in the census data; they're withheld to avoid disclosing information from an individual farm.
"Holmes County is stunning. It's exotic in its agricultural beauty," Hossfeld said. "But there's no food."
Just a mile from Cody's house, the small unincorporated community of Mileston and its farming cooperative is fighting against scarce resources to change things.
The co-op gives away much of the food it grows for free and is working to teach students how to plant and harvest vegetables, but it has a long way to go to achieving food sovereignty in the community.
More than 90 percent of the food consumed in Mississippi is imported, according to a 2014 study from Crossroads Resource Center. It's a startling number for such an agricultural state, though almost a fourth of the state's cropland is not in production.
Stepping foot in any of Holmes County's corner stores, packed with chips, candy and serving hot fried foods, the statistic comes to life.
Large "EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) accepted here" signs and colorful blinking lights decorate the local quick stops, which outnumber the grocery stores at least 3-1.
"It's basically noodles, hot dogs and bologna for a lot of families around here," Cody said. "I can say that it's kind of my fault, due to the fact that it's easier to go buy them chips and a piece of candy than find a way to the grocery store and get them a salad."
Like most everywhere in the country, Holmes County's heavily processed diet is wreaking havoc on the health of its people. Forty-six percent of folks in Holmes County are obese, giving it the second-highest obesity rate in the state. It's also got the fifth-highest rate of diabetes at 17.5 percent.
"We're eating death," said Eddie Cathan, the former mayor.
In Tchula, a dwindling town with a population just under 2,000, the newest development is a funeral home.
"They see business is booming in Tchula," said local farmer and co-op leader Calvin Head.
When talking about the food people access and eat, "you really need to be specific about what food is," said Dr. Satira Perry, a family medicine physician at University Mississippi Medical Center's Holmes Family Medicine Clinic.
"People are eating highly processed food that lacks real nutrition and lacks the healing properties that real food has," Perry said, including people who would be considered food insecure. "Technically you're not hungry. You don't see your ribs. You're not malnourished ... not third-world country."
For her patients, even one who lived in a house with no running water, obesity is the main health struggle they face, causing diabetes, heart disease and other problems.
"I think that people kind of have a general idea, you know, apples are better than apple pie, but I think to really understand how important it is … how food is medicine and how what you eat can kill you or heal you, I don't think a lot of people think of things like that," Perry said.
The cafeteria at the hospital, on the campus where Perry works, serves food as "unhealthy as anywhere," Head said.
It's where folks who work in the county, like at the school district, regularly eat lunch. On a Thursday in August, they served foods cooked with Southern soul: meatloaf, calf liver, rice, mashed potatoes, peas cooked with ham hock, corn, apple cobbler, biscuits and sausage gravy. An entrée, two sides, bread and a drink cost $5.25.
At the end of the day, the cafeteria operates on food sales and has to appeal to the palates of the people who live there.
It's about habit, Perry said, which can be an even more powerful factor than access in influencing the way people eat — in part because processed foods filled with sugar, fat and salt are biologically addictive.
"We eat the way we're taught," Cody said. "Parent was working late, parent working a lot, that's all we know is to get in there and fix us some noodles, get in there and fix us some hot dogs, get in there to fix us some baloney sandwiches. That's all we know."
Rashawn Byrd, student body president at Holmes high school, can articulate intricate details about the aquaponics system the Mileston co-op began using two years ago to fertilize land organically. In short, they raise fish and use the animal waste as plant food.
Byrd, a tall, lanky 16-year-old with glasses and braces, will take fried over baked chicken every time.
"I can't stand baked," Byrd said, acknowledging all the while it's better for you. "It's about what tastes good and what we're used to ... It's hard to revert from old ways."
Despite the farmer's co-op being just a mile from the nearest supermarket in Tchula, it's not proved feasible for local farmers to sell directly to grocery stores in the area. And the co-op is currently unable to take food stamps, so the produce that can be purchased locally with EBT is from elsewhere.
At SaveMaxx, the only Tchula supermarket located in the middle of town, large signs advertising beer, cigarettes and an ATM machine scatter the storefront. Some local farm workers loitered outside on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
Inside, a large "Little Debbie" sign towered over an assortment of packaged cakes and pastries on the shelf directly facing the iron-barred entrance.
On the left side of the store, two watermelons nestled into the bottom corner of a large cardboard box on the floor. A single bundle of bananas sat alone on a black plastic display, marking the boundary between the scarce produce section and the aisles of bagged, boxed and canned foods engulfing most of the store.
Wrapped heads of lettuce and green bell peppers in a black plastic crate rotted next to browning oranges, lemons and cucumbers. One of the three bags of grapes sat open.
A store worker who spoke some English said he planned to throw out the spoiled foods while a man in a camouflage jacket, who wandered in but didn't buy anything, commented on the expiration date of an old carton of juice.
The meat section at the store's back wall resembled a carpenter's workshop, only instead of tools, packages of $0.99 processed sandwich meats hung off the worn white perforated sheet metal.
It's the only store carrying fruits and vegetables in town. And people aren't buying.
Cody lives less than a mile from the store but won't go there.
Henry Staffold, 70, who worked as a dietary cook and kitchen manager at a hospital in Milwaukee before moving back to his hometown of Tchula, travels 12 extra miles to Lexington to get his groceries at Sunflower.
"Most of my peers cannot afford to travel," Staffold said. "Most people don't have a choice to get nutritious food they need. Once you get used to things generation after generation, this is what you get."See other Finalists