Yellow Bus, Orange Cheese, Black Lives

September 2, 2020

By: Carlton Turner, Director of Sipp Culture

Peering through the rectangular double-stacked windows of school bus #783, I could see the cars lined up from across the way. First, they were wrapped around the small metal building in the middle of the cotton field, and then stretched out to and down Old Port Gibson Road over to New Port Gibson Road, and right in front of the Lo Store. The big yellow bus slowed to a stop as Mrs. Josephine, our church pianist moonlighting as our school bus driver, navigated through the cluster of automobiles and maneuvered around the corner to our destination, Carver Elementary School.

The building encased in the conclave of cars was the place where government commodities were being disbursed. Once a month, boxes of powdered milk and eggs, canned pork, and of course that childhood staple – processed government cheese, were given to folks in the community. The line of people awaiting their rations, their box of orange gold and surplus butter, were my people. Well, they were our elders, those collecting their Social Security benefits and our neighbors that were receiving food stamps and welfare. They were our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our mothers and our fathers.

This was the Reagan era and the entire country was on a traumatic ride that would shift the very foundation of an already shaky America. Or should I say Americas, because the impact of Reagan’s policies would have a profound impact on the reshaping of both North and South America, as well as the multiple Americas (Black, white, Native, queer, rich, poor, etc.) that exist within the USA. If the entire country was having a hard time, well, as the old saying goes, when white folks catch a cold, Black folks catch the flu.

Government cheese – a leftover from World War II, made by farmers subsidized to create the surplus. At one point the government had enough cheese to provide every U.S. citizen with their very own personal 5 lbs. of processed poverty rations. All this cheese leftover from the war, it had to go somewhere, and so it first ended up in warehouses across the country. Then, with the stroke of a pen, the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 was signed, and the cheese was cut and released through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Yes, Reagan cut the cheese. That cheese made the best grilled cheese sandwiches I had ever had in my young life. Grandma would slice the block into thick cuts and place them neatly on slices of light bread and put it in the oven to toast and melt. It was love at first bite! I am so thankful for these moments. These memories that keep fresh and catalog the myriad of ways in which my grandma loved up on me.

There’s something about the gifts that war gives us. In the 80’s it was cheese, in the 90’s the 1033 Program made military surplus equipment available to police departments across the country, virtually free. But I digress. Well, not really, but I wanted to get back to the bus.

Utica, Mississippi is my home and has been the home of my people for eight generations. Our relationship to this community is deeply entangled with the land, with agriculture and food. Growing has been a part of our community identity, and for many, both in and out of Mississippi, a part of the regional identity. Mississippi, the Delta, cotton, plantations, sharecropping – these words all tie together in an imbalanced tale of Black bodies and White power. But this convergence of images only gets at part of the story. Food, in our southern Black community is also a spiritual practice and for many a religious experience. The community I grew up in around the Paige Grove church didn’t know hunger. Everybody that I knew – children, adults, and elders – were intimately connected to a grower or producer. Corn, sugar cane, peas, greens, tomatoes, okra, pork, beef, venison, chicken, turkey, fish – it all came from the community. If you didn’t grow something, somebody you were directly connected to did, and you probably made other types of contributions important and essential to the community, like being a mechanic or a carpenter or a teacher. Whatever it was, you had sumpin t’ eat. That was never a community concern. So, even as a child, there was a slight oddity to see these same people lining up to receive a box of processed food. But it was free, and for a people that have been denied all manner of support in their quest for independence and freedom, a box of free food, even if it doesn’t meet their own production standards, is still rightfully theirs.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, for maybe the fourth or fifth time, I stood outside the Utica community center with local elected officials handing out boxes of food to my neighbors, my elders, my cousins and friends. This COVID-19 moment has returned me to this familiar image. My people lining up for food. The difference, in this moment, are these lines are not filled with farmers and producers. It’s filled with teachers and essential workers, elders and retirees. Our community no longer has a grocery store, so every bag of potatoes, every gallon of milk, every bag of processed chicken nuggets is important. Even more so because now children are at home all day, every day, so the grocery bills are skyrocketing as unemployment benefits and supplementary food programs are being cut.

As Mississippi makes national news for being the epicenter of a global pandemic with a positive test rate of 23%, we can’t help but recognize the way this virus is ravaging Black bodies. Those with underlying conditions of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are taking this pandemic on the chin, as our people are hospitalized and die at a disproportionate rate than our white counterparts. Years of food with insufficient nutritional value, coupled with food policies that have crippled Black farm production, has once again placed our lives on the frontline of yet another national tragedy.

This image of my community lining up to receive boxes of subsidized food was not an image I was interested in witnessing again. But it does have its uses. I want to make this image a reminder of what is possible in this moment, a transition from a community of consumers to a community of producers. This letter is an open invitation for my community and every community to take control of the food production needed to keep people fed, healthy and cared for. We have the land. We have the knowledge. I pray we have the will! Our lives literally depend on it.

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The Mississippi Center for Cultural Production is a 2016 ArtPlace funded project. Learn more about Sipp Culture here