Kiara* is a single mother who lives in Franklin and works at a local processing plant. She works hard and is grateful to have a job, even if it means leaving the house at 4 a.m. each day for work. Her son, Vincent*, is an eighth grader who has difficulty waking up on time and getting himself fed, dressed and on the bus. When Vincent gets to school, he’s usually tardy for class and disengaged because he hasn’t eaten a nutritious breakfast. School administrators attempt to schedule meetings with Kiara but always during a time when she’s working. A missed meeting makes her seem irresponsible, but a missed shift could be the difference between paying rent or affording groceries. Kiara is in a cycle of survival mode, struggling to afford necessities and simply trying her best to create a good life for her son.
Kiara’s schedule doesn’t allow time to help Vincent with his homework or sign him up for extracurricular activities, so he spends most of his time on his phone or with his friends. Eventually, education becomes less of a priority and Vincent starts skipping school days at a time. He starts hanging out with friends who encourage him to get into trouble. At the age of 14, he gets a girl pregnant, and they both drop out of high school to start working. However, the stress of parenthood and financial challenges cause major disputes, and the relationship doesn’t last, beginning a new cycle of single parenting in survival mode.
Retired Judge Alfreda Talton-Harris has seen this story play out time and time again. From 1992 until 2016, she served on the bench for the Fifth Judicial District of Virginia (Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton) for juvenile and domestic relations court. She often asked herself at what point the judicial system needed to intervene. “We can’t cast stones upon a mom who’s trying to work,” Talton-Harris explains, “and if she stays home to raise her kids, that’s looked upon as a negative. She’s doing what is prescribed upon her to do, but she only has the same amount of hours as the rest of us.” In her former law practice and during her time on the bench, Talton-Harris had been acutely aware of crime and other issues happening in Franklin.
One she dug deeper and analyzed the situation, she found more alarming statistics indicating that Franklin was also leading in the rates for teen pregnancies, children living in single-parent households, children living below poverty level and neighborhoods with retail stores versus food stores. “All of a sudden, you see how these other negative factors contributed to a higher proportion crime rate,” she explains. “Where you live, who you live with, the pressures of how you live all contribute to obesity, engaging in risky behaviors. And then the cycle continues … and it continues and it continues.”
These factors that Talton-Harris describes relate to an issue known as geography of opportunity whereby challenges such as food insecurity, poverty levels, crime rates and so on are all determined by location. We’ve heard phrases like, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” implying that in order to succeed in life, people should be able to elevate themselves out of their current situation without any outside help. If certain conditions are keeping someone from achieving success, however, it can feel impossible for that person to pull themselves up.
The concept of the American dream — an ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved—is only possible if all Americans have access to certain tools and resources. Since this is not the case, it means that the American dream can be attained by some people but not all people — and much of a person’s success depends greatly on where they reside.
In 2018, the Foodbank conducted extensive mapping to identify communities with high rates of food insecurity and low access to grocery stores. These neighborhoods represent the wide range of food insecurity rates in our community, even in areas that are adjacent to one another. The mapping initiative also uncovered glaring and consistent trends indicating that higher rates of food insecurity are prevalent in communities of color. Information gleaned from Feeding America’s Racial Disparities Dashboard shows that 25% of Black residents in Franklin live below the poverty line, compared to 4% of White residents. Franklin’s racial inequity — which is the difference between poverty rate for Non-White residents versus White residents — is at a staggering 20.6%, compared to 10.6% for Isle of Wight County and 11% for Suffolk.
What will it take to break the cycle? Through research to understand root causes of food insecurity, the Foodbank is working to provide food access and other pertinent services in areas like Franklin through programs and collaborative partnerships. This way, additional resources and services can be layered to address disparities in access to healthy food, jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, reliable transportation, healthcare, financial literacy and higher education. Just as specific needs aren’t the same for each person to thrive, services must be holistically layered to effectively instill positive change across multiple communities.
The disparities in certain communities are visibly detrimental, but Talton-Harris believes that the dynamics contributing to negative outcomes can be altered by intervention. “The earlier we can intervene, the earlier we can offer alternatives in the perspective and life of a child,” she says, noting that parents must also be afforded self-care, personal and professional development and quality time. “You’ll be able to see these positive outcomes trickle down through generations.”
*Names have been changed