By DANNY McARTHUR / Daily Journal

After Shannon Mississippi’s only grocery store closed in early September, local resident Jennifer Watts felt the loss of the long-time community staple “like a death in the family.”

Quality Discount Foods served Shannon since 1972. With its doors now closed, residents are left with questions about the accessibility of fresh food and other groceries.

This problem exists throughout rural parts of the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report in May that identified Mississippi as one of 10 states in 2015 where 50 percent or more of census tracts had limited access to food stores such as a supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.

Tim Gillentine, of Dorsey’s Food Mart, sees the impact a local grocery store has on its customers.

“People thank me all the time for being here,” Gillentine said. “It saves them from having to go to Tupelo or Fulton.”

Gillentine grew up in the Itawamba County community of Dorsey. He has been the owner since the store opened in 1981. Gillentine has a background in the grocery business. He cut meat full-time at a previous store in the town.

His own store opened close to another store that was closing. Since then, Gillentine’s Dorsey Food Mart has been the only grocery in the community.

The store’s cut meat is its biggest draw, Gillentine said. He also offers catering, produce, groceries and recently began a hot bar and salad bar. Gillentine said many of his customers are local, and he see anywhere from 900 to 1,000 people a day.

Low access, high impact

45-year-old Jennifer Watts of Shannon said three generations of her family shopped at the now-shuttered Quality Discount Foods. She cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there.

“We’re going to miss our grocery store terribly. I hope they get another grocery store back in Shannon,” Watts said. “South Lee County needs a grocery store.”

Watts said Quality was her primary grocery store. Since it closed, she hasn’t done heavy grocery shopping.

Instead, she has used the local Dollar General for smaller items like bread and snacks.

Mantachie native Sam Farris said his hometown faced a similar issue when longtime grocery store, Mantachie Foods, closed last year after being in business since 1980. Farris remembers the store being there his whole life.

When it closed, it left the town without a source of fresh produce.

Farris and Scott Clouse began talks to open a local market in Mantachie about two months ago. Farris was inspired by his own experience working at Todd’s Big Star in Saltillo for six months, where he learned a lot from the owners. While working there, he decided he wanted to bring something similar to his hometown.

Since planning, Farris and Clouse have received support from the community, and Clouse has also been able to drum up a lot of support through his reputation as a long-time meat cutter, Farris said.

“We’re looking forward to providing a service that is much needed and I hope much wanted in Mantachie. That’s my home, and it means a lot to me,” Farris said. “The people mean a lot to me and I want to do my part to help them in any way I can.”

The store will be called Sam’s Town Market and will be on Main Street. There are plans to offer meat, produce, dairy, bread and frozen items. Farris also wants to reserve one side of the building for vendors to rent monthly and sell their own local, consumable products.

According to 100 Million Healthier Lives, convened by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, approximately 20 percent of Mississippians have low access to grocery stores, defined as farther than one mile in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas.

In Northeast Mississippi, five counties have over 20 percent of their population with low access to a grocery store, according to 2015 data: Benton, at about 36 percent; Clay, about 27 percent; Lafayette, about 33 percent; Lee, about 21 percent; and Oktibbeha, about 28 percent.

For certain sectors of the population, transportation remains a concern. In Shannon, Watts is a hairdresser and many of her older clients mention that transportation to groceries is an issue for them.

John Childers, owner of Stokes Supermarket in New Albany, said many of his elderly customers want a local option because they are scared to drive far for groceries or at night. Others need a ride to grocery stores, and it is easier to find one in town. If they can’t drive, some customers even walk.

Family-owned challenges

Stokes Supermarket has been a landmark in the community since it opened in 1922. Childers sees 800 to 1,000 transactions a week with a loyal base of local customers.

But Stokes is not immune from the challenges independent grocery stores face in the era of conglomerate stores like Walmart and Dollar General.

Childers said the rise in competition can be tough for independent grocers and changes in the industry have made it harder to be a single-store operator.

In order to compete, Childers said local grocers have to adapt to what customers now want.

However, Childers believes locally-owned stores have some advantages in the market, including convenience and the opportunity for personalized relationships. He often has customers who come to the store to socialize, and the business has built a rapport with the community.

“We have people who come in here who’ve been coming here for forty years or more. I know them, their children, their grandchildren, and that’s a pretty nice feeling to have that relationship with them,” Childers said.

In Dorsey, Gillentine said that while he invests in advertising, word of mouth helps keep him competitive. He employs about 30 people, many of who are also local. Many have a long background in the grocery business.

Farris also echoed the importance of shopping locally to support local grocery stores. He said the current potential opening date for Sam’s Town Market is early November, but it can be pushed back if the need arises.

“I do understand that price concerns are important, as well they should be, to consumers, but these local grocery stores are going to make the difference not just from a convenience standpoint, but from a quality standpoint and from a trustworthiness standpoint,” Farris said. “They need the people’s support to be able to operate.”