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Students make voices heard on life in a food desert

By John Railey 

They are too young to experience the food hardships they do, and they are speaking out so that their children will not have to live through those hardships. A group of students from the YouthRise program in East Winston have produced a video that they hope to put before policymakers and the rest of the public. 

YouthRise (Youth Research in Sustaining Economics) is a summer program sponsored by CSEM and led by WSSU Professor Charity Griffin. It aims to help students in East Winston who want an equal shot at climbing the ladder to economic mobility. It is based on youth-led participatory research. 

To see the video. The short but powerful film begins with white words on a light-blue screen spelling out the problem, that of lack of access to healthy food options being one of many barriers to better economic mobility, and that the pandemic has aggravated that problem:  “Now more than ever, we are seeing the impact of not having access to healthy food options.” 

Then, four students, one by one, appear on the screen. They talk about the lack of food choices, and higher prices for the food that is there. “There is only one grocery store in my community and its shelves are often unstocked to due to COVID-19,” one student says. “It’s kinda like a food desert.” 

More words appear on the screen: “Why don’t we have the same food options as others in Winston-Salem? Why aren’t there healthy food options in my community? This is a barrier that is stopping us from obtaining higher economic mobility.” 

The video closes with these words: “We like healthy options, too!” 

East Winston’s one large grocery store is a Food Lion on New Walkertown Road. CSEM research on Census tracts has indicated that, because East Winston is a low-income area, there is little economic incentive for more grocery stores to come to the area. However, CSEM, and Griffin’s program, aim to confront the greater picture as well, looking at why East Winston is a low-income area and what can be done to change that. 

The framework of Griffin’s research centers on listening to and learning from young people, and aims to promote economic mobility by encouraging students to tackle the issues they face. By letting policymakers hear of their concerns, beneficial impact can result. 

The students in the program, called “collaborators,” come from Title I schools in Winston-Salem, schools with high numbers of children from underserved families. 
Last summer, the student collaborators, along with Griffin, met in several sessions at the Carl Russell Community Center on Carver School Road. Over several classes, WSSU student interns LaDarian Eaton, Tyler Chisolm and Matthew Parker helped collaborators define their needs: better transportation and teachers, more grocery stores and natural food, better job opportunities, eradication of poverty, more after-school opportunities and recreational outlets, more mentors, more college preparation programs, more government trust in their communities, better health care, and more sidewalks. Students are encouraged to find ways – through their teachers, parents and others – to get their concerns before officials and policymakers who can address these needs. 

Toward that end, WSSU students this fall have been polishing the video for the YouthRise collaborators.

Fixing all the broken rungs on the ladder of economic mobility will require input from all in the community. Learning how to effectively give that input through individual efforts and community groups must start early. The YouthRise students are doing that. The video is the latest step in their journey. 

John Railey is the writer-in-residence at CSEM. He can be reached