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By: Clint Smith
As a child,
my father would tell me stories
of ancient Egyptian warriors
travelling for endless days and nights
across infinite desert planes
showing signs of endurance and bravery
I could only dream of emulating.
He would tell me that upon their return home,
these warriors would be welcomed with a feast
worthy of their bravery on the battlefield.
Years later as a teacher in Greater Washington D.C.
I too find myself traversing a desert --
though not the one I envisioned.
A food desert
is as a poor urban area
where residents cannot afford or are not given access
to healthy food and grocery stores.
Everyday at 2:45,
I watch my students
hop onto this leaking submarine of a school bus.
Every block bringing them deeper
into an ocean where the only fish they find are fried,
where fruits and vegetables just can't be found
because there are no grocery stores here.
Just liquor stores and Popeye's.
Dunkin Donuts and 7/11's.
born into a neighborhood
that feels more pollution than solution.
It is then I realize,
I am not too far from the deserts
I once dreamed of.
Whether Anacostia or the Sahara
it doesn't make much difference
because to Whole Foods
Southeast DC is no different than the Serengeti.
To them, brown skinned boys like my students
are nothing more than walking cacti,
just a piece of the scenery the world
has taught everyone to stay away from.
literally has a landfill in her backyard
so she has a hard time
convincing herself that the world doesn't just think she's trash.
Restaurants come and dump out the remains of food
that she'll never be able to afford to eat
three steps from her back door.
eats fast food five days a week
because his mother works three jobs
to take care of six kids
and only sees her son
when she arrives home from work
at the same time he is leaving for school.
He has gotten so big
that the excess fat bunkered beneath his skin
puts added pressure on his joints.
His knees are literally crumbling
under the weight of this world.
watched her father shot two feet from her front porch.
She wants nothing more than to go outside
and play at the park after school
but gun violence, has made a merry-go-round
feel more like Russian roulette.
So she doesn't go outside
simply eats any processed food from the cabinet
that will last long enough to prevent her from
leaving the house too often.
These are my students,
fighting a battle against an enemy
they cannot clearly see.
These kings and queens were meant to feast not to fester,
but their zip code has already told them
that their life expectancies are 30 years shorter
than in the county seven miles away.
I can see the faults of my own ancestry
shaking in their eyes.
Diabetes and high blood pressure run
through the roots of my family tree.
Heart disease is as much a part of my history
as shackles and segregation.
So, from my father's kidney transplant
to Olivia's asthma
these things are more than mere coincidence.
Both grew up in places more accustomed
to gunshots than gardens.
So tell me that place doesn't matter—
that the neighborhoods that are predominantly healthy
aren't the one's that are predominantly wealthy.
When you're not choosing
between buying your medicine or your groceries
health doesn't have to be a luxury.
It doesn't have to be an abstract concept
presented in academic journals and policy briefs.
My students, overcome more everyday
than I will in my lifetime.
They are the roses that grew from the concrete—
the budding oasis in the heart of the desert.
Their lives are worth far more
than the things this world has fed to them.
© 2013 Clint Smith