OXFORD, Miss. – Growing up, Mary Margaret Saulters’ home in the rural Delta town of Tchula was 20 miles from the nearest grocery store. It was in this literal “food desert” – as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – that her interest in food security and social inequality first took root.
“My family was really lucky because we could afford to grow organic vegetables and drive the 30 minutes to the grocery store,” said Saulters, a senior at the University of Mississippi. “But my neighbors couldn’t. They relied on convenience stores, if that, for food. I grew up witnessing the disparity and inequality and the poor health that came from it, but I didn’t know what to do.”
The biology and anthropology major has spent the last two years doing something about it. Through her work with the UM College Corps, Saulters has identified and worked to remedy regional social and food inequalities, an effort that has been so successful it earned her the 2013 Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence, or GIVE, award for Outstanding College Student and a 2013 Newman Civic Fellow accolade from Campus Compact, a designation reserved for the next generation of civic leaders.
“Mary Margaret has become an important campus and community leader, someone who has thoughtfully applied her skills and interests to positively impact the lives of low-income and homeless people in Mississippi,” said Stephen Monroe , College Corps director and assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “We ask all College Corps members to put service before self, and Mary Margaret exemplifies this ideal.”
Saulters began working with the highly selective College Corps, a community-based AmeriCorps program, in 2011. Since then, she has partnered with fellow student Meghan Litton to run a social entrepreneurship venture Grace(full) Totes, benefiting Interfaith Compassion Ministry, one of a handful of local organizations working with the homeless. The business, housed in the university’s new Insight Park incubator, won the “Most Sustainable Business Plan” in the School of Business Administration’s annual Gillespie Business Plan competition. In fall 2011, Saulters organized “Plates to End Poverty,” a fundraiser that helped buy a new computer for ICM.
Most recently, Saulters helped spearhead the creation of an on-campus food bank when she realized that the issue of food security, which she has been studying for her Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College thesis, was much closer than she thought.
“We had some faculty members come speak to College Corps and say, ‘We’ve had students coming to us who can’t afford to eat on campus,’” Saulters said. “I’m looking at these issues in other parts of Mississippi, but this is here. That just really stuck with me.”
The result was the UM Food Bank, which opened in November after months of careful planning by students, faculty and staff. Saulters, who will graduate in May, has logged more than 500 official hours with College Corps – only 300 are required per academic year. In February, she presented a version of her honors thesis, directed by UM associate professor of sociology John Green, at the Alabama-Mississippi Sociological Association’s annual conference and won first place for best undergraduate submission. Saulters plans to attend graduate school to study rural sociology next fall.
“Academically, we are always searching for the Mary Margarets of the world,” said Albert Nylander, director of the UM McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement. “Her intelligence and commitment to social justice will continue upon her UM graduation as she prepares for graduate school, focusing on important food security issues and continuing to address important societal needs. Mary Margaret is so deserving of these awards.”
Saulters will accept the GIVE award April 22 in Jackson. The award honors outstanding volunteer leaders who have positively impacted Mississippi and is presented by Volunteer Mississippi in coordination with the Office of the Governor and first lady Deborah Bryant. Saulters is among 181 students from 36 states to be named a Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact, which recognizes students studying social causes and creating lasting change. The Newman Civic Fellow designation is made possible support from the KPMG Foundation.