By: Erica Kohl-Arenas, Faculty Director, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life Associate Professor, American Studies
This month I took my first plane ride since the global pandemic shutdown in early 2020. My masked travels on full flights from Sacramento, California to Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, Mississippi, and back were not my favorite part of the month. But the visit with the Sipp Culture community in Utica, Mississippi certainly was my best experience in quite some time! I came to Utica to co-host a series of local focus groups as part of the Equitable Food Futures research project with my team members Carlton Turner of Sipp Culture, my colleague Mina Matlon of Imagining America, and Jean Greene who leads the project’s local Community Advisory Group. The purpose of the focus groups is to understand what residents in the Utica area think about past, present, and future ways of accessing and sharing food – to learn about the rich food and farming history in the area, how people feel about the loss of the local grocery store and other Utica organizations, and what they think is possible to bring food to the community now and in the future.
What a joy it was to finally visit Utica and Sipp Culture. When first arriving, my colleague Mina and I entered the Sipp office on 319 White Oak Street to be warmly greeted by Brandi and Chivona who were busy amid multiple projects, phone calls, and the bustle going on around the building. Carlton peeked in and gave us a big masked hug followed by a tour. My mind was blown and heart full to hear of all of the good work and of future plans. From the media lab, to the farm and garden, to the artist in residence, to the visitor lodging currently under construction, to the new space at the center of town currently being planned as a multi-use community hub. The dreams of a vibrant, healthy, self-owned and self-run community full of opportunities to buy, grow, cook, share and celebrate food were coming to life! Sitting on the back porch for the staff meeting, the Sipp Culture team grounded us in the daily work of listening to one another, going over tasks associated with current and future farming and art making projects, and painting a picture of how individuals are being transformed through their shared efforts.
The following day we held three focus groups at Hinds Community College in Utica, one for elders, one for middle aged community members, and one for younger people. While the Sipp Culture team will share more later about what we learned in these focus groups, I was most moved by the joy, laughter, and happy chatter that came when focus group participants talked about growing, harvesting, sharing and cooking food from backyard gardens and farms. Almost everyone mentioned grandma or grandpa’s garden. For the elders there was a shared recognition of ‘the good old days’ when most people grew their own food, traded vegetables and fruit and caught food from the wild, from deer to fish. I also loved hearing about all the various places in the community where food was and sometimes still is bought or traded – from over a neighbor’s fence, farm stands, backs of trucks, and around the family dinner table.
While the younger and older participants alike shared childhood memories of gardening, family meals and special goods like blackberry cobblers and jams, fried catfish, greens, okra, sweet potatoes, beans picked from the stalk, they also all shared a sense of loss– sharing somber reflections on the closing of the Sunflower grocery store, of other food stories shutting down like Hood’s Grocery which made the best rotisserie chicken, and the closing of the local high school. The younger members of the focus groups expressed feeling exhausted with long drives to work, difficult journeys to get groceries, and little time to cook and dine with family.
The laughter and smiles returned at the end of each focus group when everyone was invited to share their dreams for an ideal food future for the Utica area. From community gardens, to farmers markets, to backyard planting and harvesting support networks, to a waffle house, a bakery, a family restaurant, and even a wine tasting shop, the picture of a future community came to life! Some even wrote letters to a future relative. One of my favorite letters to the future was from a young mother. She writes, “Dear grandchild, Utica is what I always dreamed it would be. It has a new grocery store, restaurants, and a 24 hour convenience store. I never want to leave.” I look forward to my next visit to Utica to witness the next small steps towards these beautiful dreams!