Jean Greene drove the eight-minute route from the school to the Sunflower grocery store off Cayuga Street in Utica, Miss., one evening in the year 2000 after completing a work day. On the way, the then-recently hired Hinds Community College librarian passed a furniture store, a bank, a laundromat and other small businesses before pulling into the Sunflower parking lot and entering the store.
To her left, Greene saw some familiar faces grabbing meals at the deli before sitting in the dining area. Other residents had already huddled up there, having conversations about church, work and other aspects of life.
To her right, some neighbors she recognized were picking up their prescriptions and other medicines. Others still scoured the aisles for fresh produce, meat and other perishables.
Though she was a transplant from Panola County who was still adjusting to her surroundings, Greene felt that the grocery store was the heart of the town.
“It filled more than just a normal grocery-store function,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s where you met up with folks and you caught up with who was doing what … and how everybody’s family was doing. It was really cool.”
Greene grew up in Polk, which is around five miles from Highways 6, 51 and 55 and is close to Batesville, Miss. Plenty of traffic flowed in and out of the community. To accommodate that traffic, the town opened four grocery stores, an array of fast-food restaurants, plants and other businesses.
“Batesville is home to South Panola High School, which has a very active and illustrious football team, so they have a lot of different goods coming through (the town),” Greene said. “It would seem that would be the case for Utica, but it has not worked out that way.”
As the years wore on, the once-sprawling town of Utica began to dwindle. The first blow came when the consolidated high schools, which had a great relationship with the Sunflower grocery store for acquiring supplies and other items, closed in the 1990s.
Then the Bernstein T-shirt factory that employed many women who would visit the grocery store frequently after work closed down. When job opportunities disappeared, so did the people, leading to a gradual decrease in population over the years.
“Then in 2014, the (Hinds County Agricultural) High School on the (Hinds Community College) Utica campus closed,” Greene said. “A lot of revenue that had been up until that time coming through that store stopped.”
Teachers at the high school would also shop at the grocery store, but no school meant no teachers. And no teachers meant a less consistent flow of money supporting the local economy. And less revenue resulted in the Sunflower closing in 2014.
“It was an economic decision,” Greene said. “I’m sure on their part that they weren’t making as much money as they had at one time. And so the rest of us paid the price for that economic decision. Once they left, then the little dollar store that was next to them left. And then the laundromat closed down.”
Utica, once thriving, turned into a food desert, making it even more complicated for residents to get access to fresh produce and food. Greene, who lives seven miles outside of Utica, often finds herself 30 miles away in Clinton just to shop for groceries.
“Now, we have an option (of) growing your own garden, but who has the green thumb to do that?” Greene said. “Sipp Culture has been working with their farm to help supplement some of the fresh fruits and vegetables that folks are missing, but that’s just one (option) that needs some help.”
‘Create Something Together’
Sipp Culture, also known as the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, is a nonprofit in Utica that supports efforts relating to food, stories and legacy to find solutions for strengthening Utica’s local food system, improving health equity and uplifting rural artistic voices.
Sipp Culture Co-Director and Programs Manager Brandi Turner founded the organization with her husband Carlton Turner, who is an eighth-generation Utica native. Since the nonprofit’s inception, the duo has worked alongside members of their community to facilitate new, innovative ideas to restore Utica.
In December 2020, Sipp Culture hosted a “Meet, Greet & Eat”, giving free, no-contact meals to residents and collecting stories about food for their “Equitable Food Futures” research project. The organization helped start a 17-acre community garden, with one acre in production; launched a program to support rural artists through the Rural Performance Production Lab; and began hosting “First Fridays,” a farmers market featuring music and vendors held the first Friday of each month.
Sipp Culture is continuing to build its legacy with One Nation One Project’s Arts for Everybody, a year-long campaign supporting artists and leaders across 18 cities as they create art projects aspiring to create healthier communities. Sipp Culture is partnering with the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center and the town of Utica for this project.
The opportunity comes through a long-term relationship with Clyde Valentine, who works with One Nation One Project. “The way that this particular project works is about art, health and wellness, and because Sipp Culture’s work is about food and story, arts and agriculture, that was why he thought of us,” Brandi Turner told the Mississippi Free Press.
The 18 cities will premiere their projects simultaneously on July 24, 2024. Sipp Culture left the decision of what the project would be to the community advisory board, who ultimately decided on a food festival.
“Sipp Culture’s work has started with engaging the community from its onset. … What we decided to do was form a community advisory group and that is where daniel johnson, who’s been working with Sipp Culture in a couple of different roles over the last seven years,” Turner said. (johnson’s name is legally lowercased).
The community advisory board personally reached out to community members to acquire stories and information relevant to the project. The organization said most residents they questioned liked the idea of a food-focused project.
“The beauty about (the community advisory board) has been that this has created a space for the community to be able to come together to begin to think about what it looks like to create something together,” Turner added.
The prompt for One Nation One Project’s campaign is “No place like home.” For the town of Utica, this slogan means lifting up a community that at one time did not need to be concerned about food access because the town was a community of growers, Turner said.
“We have a really rich community of growers of food. This is the place where Utica Normal & Industrial Institute was formulated—which is now Hinds Community College Utica Campus—by William Holtzclaw, who was an agriculturalist,” she said.
“Everybody grew their own food. Everybody shared their own food, but those stories actually have been lost,” Turner continued. “We’ve turned into a community that has essentially become one more of consumption than one of production.”
One Nation One Project has given Sipp Culture $100,000 to put this project together with the opportunity to receive more funding if needed. The Homegrown Utica Festival is a way to reactivate the spirit of growing food that the community has had a hand in planting.
Mary Lofton grew up in Utica in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She remembers the town having three grocery stores, a Ford dealership and various thriving businesses. On Saturdays, she and her parents would get in their car and head into town along Main and Depot streets.
“The town would be full of people on both sides of the street,” Lofton told the Mississippi Free Press. “We were allowed to stay on one side of the street, and the other side of the street with the cafes is where the adults and men would hang out.”
Dressed in the best clothes, she and her friends would walk up and down Main Street, talking and exploring stores. “We were known for being a small, united community,” Lofton noted.
Although Lofton still believes the town is united, it’s a shell of the vision she paints of her childhood in Utica. She has gone from having three grocery-store options to none at all. With two disabled siblings, she takes on the responsibility of making grocery-store runs for them. Inconveniently, she has to travel between 20 and 30 miles out to get to a grocery store, and it can be an all-day process, she laments.
“There was a time where my husband and I produced a garden during the summer months,” Lofton said. “We started raising greens, tomatoes, okra, bell peppers, and that helped out a lot.”
But time and funds ultimately led the Loftons back to depending on grocery stores for their food. Eventually, Sipp Culture created a community garden with Lofton serving on the advisory board. Eventually, the nonprofit asked her to be on the advisory board for the One Nation One Project endeavor.
The community advisory board is made up of seven people who make all the decisions surrounding the Homegrown Utica Festival. Lofton said they decided on the idea of doing a homegrown festival as a way to pay homage to their Utica upbringing.
“That’s how we was raised,” she explained. “I was reared on a garden. That’s where we got our food from. That’s how my parents provided for us.”
At next year’s festival, people can expect food, performances, workshops, vendors, arts and crafts, dancing from local dance groups, music from local performers and wellness checks for blood pressure and other ailments, Lofton said.
“We hired Fahrenheit Creative Group; they’re the ones that are designing the project the way that we want it to be,” she said. “They’ve given us the road map for how we want the festival to look that day.”
Participating in the project has helped Lofton redefine what constitutes art, she said. She realizes that art can be whatever a person creates, from making music to baking a cake, and that art makes people feel good about themselves and forget their worries in life.
“Art makes you feel safe,” Lofton said.
It wasn’t until the Sunflower grocery store closed in 2014 that Mary realized how important it was for the community to go back to its roots of being growers. If the community doesn’t act for itself, she asked, who will?
“There’s a good chance that a grocery store may never come back to our town, so the next best thing to do is to grow your own—homegrown.”
Conversations around growing healthy food and challenges to accessing it led the community advisory board to start a food club. Jean Greene, who is on the board for the food club, said they are currently working on hiring a researcher to help them with structuring the food club.
“There’s a working group to get a researcher to help us investigate where we can get our staples, like flour and sugar and those kinds of things,” Greene said. “What’s going to be our best opportunity is to partner with some farm coalitions or somebody like Cisco.”
“We’ve looked at the Rainbow co-op model,” she added.
The Rainbow Whole Foods Co-op operated in Jackson for 40 years, beginning as an informal bulk food-buying club in 1978. It was formerly chartered as a cooperative in 1980 and operated until 2020.
“A whole bunch of members would purchase food wholesale then resell at a discount to members. Members got a discount and it looked like a grocery store. We’re thinking about something along those lines, maybe not a complete replica of Rainbow, but something that would work for Utica and its population,” Green explained.
daniel johnson is a former board member and vice president for the Rainbow Whole Foods Co-op and is now a community advisor and conduit between One Nation One Project and the Utica community.
As an artist himself, johnson believes that when people have access to the arts and are sharing art experiences, they experience a greater sense of belonging and social cohesion in their community.
“A piece that I think ONOP is particularly hitting on is social cohesion, that we have shared culture,” he said. “We have all kinds of elements in a community, whether it’s food or music or movement from parades that we hold together to common recipes that you find in a community.”
A project like this allows johnson and the Utica community to stretch the traditional understanding of what people label as art—describing the acts of bringing people together and building trust, forming relationships and broadening the sense of belonging people feel in elements of shared culture as an art itself.
“You look at the Civil Rights Movement and the role of singing, distinctly the role local southern singers played; I mean social movement is really predicated on shared cultural touchstones, and that’s really part of what we’re working on this year,” johnson said. “How are we bringing the community into this? How are we creating the invitation, the entry points?”
For Utica, the homegrown festival is the focal point with different initiatives like the food club and the committee that is partnering with Utica Elementary and Middle School’s art teacher to bring in an artist-in-residence to work with eighth graders around oral histories with food.
“Schools and grocery stores are big pieces that communities orbit around. So when you lose those things, in a way, you lose the thing that’s tying you together,” Johnson said.
‘Renewal and Revival’
Sipp Culture co-founder Brandi Turner is originally from Detroit, Mich., but has been a part of the Utica community for 26 years. She is part of a generation that experienced Utica when it still had a grocery store, as well as the town’s decline after the Sunflower’s closing.
“Prior to Sipp Culture, there wasn’t a whole lot for me to be in the actual town of Utica. We reside in Utica, but we’re on the outskirts,” Turner said. “I speak to this as a community member and a parent who has children that so much of what I’ve had to do always involves me leaving Utica to do it. There’s a strong desire to have those needs be right where I live, so that’s the passion for why I helped co-found Sipp Culture.”
After the Sunflower closed and the 2020 pandemic, everybody in the Utica community seemed like an island unto themselves, Jean Greene said. Despite all the new activity in town, getting people to come back outside has been difficult, but this project has the potential to change that, she believes.
“You have to start retraining them that there’s something available for entertainment, for edification, for education,” Greene said. “You’re not going to have a ton of people come out the first time because you’ve got to retrain them, and they’ve got to see if you’re going to be consistent. Consistency is the thing that folks are missing.”
Greene wants to see more projects going on in the community and more people coming together to create more businesses. A business will pop up for about six to eight months only to close for good soon after, she observed.
“The entire 39175 area code needs to see this renewal and revival. You gotta feed people … You have to feed their spirit. You have to feed their heart and soul,” Greene said. “And I think Sipp Culture and us working together with the arts and One Nation One Project is kind of feeding folks in places they didn’t even know they were hungry.”
To learn more about Sipp Culture and their work in the community, visit sippculture.org. Visit onenationoneproject.com to learn more about One Nation One Project. Sipp Culture will be debuting their project, Homegrown Utica Festival, on July 27, 2024, in Utica, Miss.
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