As we close in on the holidays, The Lighthouse caught up with Marquitrice Mangham, a woman who recently opened a grocery store, Farmacy Marketplace, in the underserved town of Webb, Miss. Grocery stores are rare in the Delta, which leaves residents in a vast “food desert,” with no access to fresh vegetables and produce. This, she says, is a travesty in one of the most fertile regions on the planet.
Mangham runs In Her Shoes Inc., a nonprofit providing crisis prevention and intervention services to adolescent homeless females and runaways in and around Douglas, Ga. But she also hopes to help Mississippi by investing in a community known more for shuttered businesses and endangered hospitals. Mangham’s work has her commuting back and forth between Georgia and Mississippi. Her schedule is packed with the high demand the holiday season puts on grocery store owners, but she made time for for an interview with us.
The Lighthouse: How hard or easy is it to open a grocery store in a small Delta community?
Mangham: It was challenging. It’s already difficult enough to access resources and labor. But then there’s the costs and the issues with COVID. I started this project in March, with a timeline of opening in July, but the rising costs of materials and labor put us a little behind.
The Lighthouse: Bank loans aren’t so easy to come by. How’d you manage it?
Mangham: We didn’t get a loan. In Her Shoes Inc. bought the building two years ago. When I bought it, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it, but people saw me there cleaning out the building, and kept asking “What are you gonna do with it?” And I wasn’t sure, so they said, “We need a grocery store!” We have needed one for years. I knew this myself living and farming here. You have to drive far just to get a salad or a sandwich.
The Lighthouse: How did you manage the costs?
Mangham: The costs of equipment, renovation and refrigerators and things were paid for through grant funding, but much of it was borne personally or through my organization. I also farm. I’m still a planter here. A lot of the work also came from people in the area who wanted to help. People gave a lot of their time and charged me very little to get this project off the ground because they wanted to finally live in a community with a grocery store within walking distance of their front doors. I would love for this to be a blueprint for other community grocery stores, but I think if I were to do it again, I know what avenues and measures to take to make it less costly. I now know where to get great equipment, who to trust, and who not to trust.
The Lighthouse: How’s business so far? Are you making ends meet?
Mangham: We are. Most of our revenue is coming from people who live in the area, and people in this area have a very high SNAP participation rate and EBT participation rate. We don’t have any loans, we’re paying our distributors, our insurance, and our payroll. We’re not able to make a profit just yet, but we are able to break even. We expect things to get better. We’ve only been open a month, and we’re still getting the word out and getting good publicity.
The Lighthouse: I hear you’re making ends meet while paying $10 an hour.
Mangham: That’s true.
The Lighthouse: I have an unrelated question for you. Your family owns a lot of farmland in the Delta—
Mangham: We have about 200 acres total, with 180-acres of that being cropland.
The Lighthouse: How did your family manage to hang onto that land when so many Black families had no choice but to sell over the last century due to neglect from federal USDA programs and decades of racist behavior from white-owned banks?
Mangham: Over 90% of Black-owned farms are gone because of that.
The Lighthouse: Well, the USDA did spend almost 100 years denying Black farmers services. So how did your family manage to hold things together under generations of federal indifference?
Mangham: My family did have to do some borrowing, but they did it smart.
The Lighthouse: Smart, how? In the 1950s and 1940s it was all white banks, all the time, and they hated you. If they even gave you a loan, they couldn’t wait to call it in and then sell your property to your white neighbor.
Mangham: My family didn’t necessarily get loans through banks. Sometimes they were able to get funding from family members. They would all pitch in and put in their own personal money in bad years. And we did what I try to do today: don’t borrow. Things have changed since then. I, actually, have grant funding through the USDA to train other farmers, and one of the programs I encourage is ‘land possession planning,’ which is one of the ways we were able to hold onto our property all these years. We did smart farming, and we did true family farming. When I was a little girl, I helped chop cotton in the 1980s and 1990s. We relied on each other. That helped with expenses and costs.
The Lighthouse: You’ve complained that Delta farmers are squandering their resources by relying on monocropping. Everything’s soybeans and corn, and not much else. Are you saying we need more fruit trees in the Delta?
Mangham: We need that, but I’m more motivated to encourage minority farmers to raise more animals. Mississippi is a billion-dollar industry when it comes to poultry, but we have no poultry processing facilities in the Delta. That means the poorest region in the poorest state has no access to a billion-dollar industry.
The Lighthouse: Critics might say the soil is so good there, why on earth would you put a chicken or a cow on it?
Mangham: If we don’t put a cow on it, we’re going to spend twice as much trying to buy beef. We’re importing everything from everywhere else, and costs are exorbitant—and we’re already struggling with being poor. You have to diversify. You can’t just rely on one crop. You have to diversify and sustain. Back in the day, we had soybeans and corn and wheat, but we also raised hogs, we had cows, we had chickens, we had goats, we had our own vegetables. We had everything, and that’s one of the ways we sustained and didn’t have to rely on outside help. And we still need to be able to do that to sustain a farm, because you never know what’s going to happen with the market or the weather. I had a bad soybean crop just this year.
The Lighthouse: The federal government still pays people to focus on one specific crop, like corn, over others.
Mangham: Just because they pay you to grow one thing doesn’t mean there’s not 20 or 30 other things you could grow. You can participate in those programs and still diversify your crop.
The Lighthouse: This brings us to where you get the food for your store. Soybeans are still everywhere in the Delta, but you clearly sell more than soybeans. Is it easy finding squash and other vegetables and meats?
Mangham: No, it is not. My goal is to have at least 20 to 30 percent of our fruits and vegetables and meats coming from local growers by the year 2025. Right now, the program that I operate is helping to position farmers to ‘contract grow’ and sell healthy food, not just to me but to any market. But it has not been easy because people have been hobby growing, or they’re not structured, or they don’t have their business properly set up. So it’s taking some time to help farmers prepare for varied crops. But we’re hoping to make it work.
The Lighthouse: Aren’t high costs a problem with buying local?
Mangham: It’s feasible with a good transportation and marketing infrastructure. As a farmer, I would prefer to sell my crops at a cheaper price rather than waste it. I talked to a farmer the other day who had to throw away tons and tons of tomatoes, and yellow and orange peppers because the produce had no place to go, and it rots.
The Lighthouse: But you can freeze them. What about canning them?
Mangham: If you can process them—but that’s a big “if.” You can’t process it, if you don’t have access to a USDA processing facility, but the facilities need to be there. Plus, you have to have authorization to process it. You can freeze it, sure, but who’s going to buy it without proper packaging? And freeze it for how long? You need to be able to balance all of that and have the infrastructure in place to sell it. I prefer to buy food fresh, but you must be able to grow what you can sell, grow to scale and contract prior to selling, rather than just growing and wasting it.
The Lighthouse: And your organization offers farmers training for these things?
Mangham: In Her Shoes Inc. has grant funding for that training, but the problem is access and outreach. We can talk to the farmers but convincing them to come in and learn has been a challenge. The education is out there. There’s not just me. The USDA puts hundreds of millions of dollars every year into education and outreach in Mississippi. The USDA’s website will show you what organizations are getting funding to provide just that kind of education assistance.
The Lighthouse: You say you offer that training. What’s the number you’d like prospective farmers to call?
Mangham: Call 662.654.5800, or they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: In Her Shoes Inc. is still looking to hire a small business training coordinator to provide technical assistance and training for the nonprofit’s farmer coaching program. The full-time job is grant-funded for two-years. Farming know-how, business accounting and familiarity with setting up a small business under Mississippi rules and ordinances are very welcomed. Call 662.654.5800 for more information.