I grew up about 10 miles south of Rocky Mount in a town called Elm City with just one main stoplight that seemed like something off of Andy Griffith. As a kid, going to Rocky Mount with my family was a big adventure. Now years later, I have the opportunity to be a FoodCorps service member in Rocky Mount—the city that seemed so big and exciting to me as a child and whose culture and demographics I understand deeply. I know that the county of Edgecombe and those due east from here are ranked in the top 15 for the most overweight and obese counties in North Carolina.
I also know that the color line—the metaphorical line that separates blacks and whites as discussed by W.E.B. Dubois and others—still exists in too many cities around the South and the nation.
I am an African American who grew up in and around this area, and I have seen how cities such as Rocky Mount and Wilson, its next door neighbor, have the same basic demographics. Mostly impoverished minorities live on one side of town, with little to no access to the same resources as the people on the prosperous side of town, where mostly whites live. I have noticed how the lack of education about healthy food and how to purchase healthy food on a budget has physically and mentally destroyed the people who live in the depressed socioeconomic areas.
I have hope that one day all kids regardless of race or social class will be connected to real food, and that real food will become a part of the community and culture.
One thing that is beneficial to me in my service in more ways than I predicted is being a familiar face in my community who can relate easily to the African-American community.
I did not realize the impact that this could have until I attended a “Walk at School” event at one of the schools I serve. An African-American kindergarten student was able to open up and have conversation with me for about 20 minutes as we walked around the school track. The teachers and staff later informed me that he was one of the children that they were concerned about because of inappropriate behavior. They told me he usually doesn’t listen to any of the staff and that this was the first time he had interacted with an adult in such a positive way. This was a win for him because now the school knows that it is not just the child; instead, it could be who relates to the child. It caused me to consider why the sudden change in behavior. I couldn’t help but consider whether that student may be in an environment where there are a lot of people who look different from him, so perhaps he clings to what he is familiar with and that is a black male.
I now know that my presence in these schools is going to be critical for these kids because most of them have never seen or even heard of an African-American male who has a degree in nutrition and dietetics.
Not only do I have an opportunity to reach those in the minority, but also the majority, because when food is mentioned all people recognize familiar food traditions among each other.
Food and nutrition have the ability to bring people together and break the color line, because although food is colorful at times it has no race.
When I sit down with my friend Julian who is white, the same tomato on his salad is the same tomato on my salad. We share the same food, and greater than the food, we commune and connect. This is why I was so excited to serve in my hometown: to bring people together through food.