Life Lessons and Silent Beauty: Fighting Hunger in South Dakota

Nicholas FrenchEmerson, Field

Above: 30th Class Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow Nicholas French in South Dakota.

I am a child of Southfield and Detroit, Michigan—the heart of the rust belt, and home to some of the largest Black communities in the Midwest. Though I was born in Southfield, I spent my formative years living in downtown Detroit near the bustling streets of Jefferson and Lafayette. Through my child eyes I saw the city as a place of whimsy and youthful play—attending family cookouts, voraciously reading, and forming bonds with the individuals who I still call my closest friends to this day. These were the memories of my youth, possible in large part because of the protective eye and tireless work of my mother—a diligent attorney and leader—and loving family members.

However, flashes of my hometown’s reality would often break through this protective barrier. I grew up in Detroit during the 2000s and early 2010s, the years of the city’s bankruptcy and some of the roughest years for the Black community in the city’s history. From the 1950s onward, the city of Detroit experienced a massive loss of wealth and tax revenue due to a combination of white flight, the loss of the automotive jobs that served as the city’s foundation, and the exodus of the Black middle class to neighboring suburbs. This situation left Detroit in dire straits, which reached a crescendo when I was just beginning to look around and understand the world surrounding me. I witnessed the disparities between the neighborhoods near where I grew up and the sizeable wealth of white communities such as Grosse Pointe.

Though I was able to live in relative ease and safety, I became progressively more aware of the fact that the residents of my city were suffering from disproportionately large rates of food insecurity, housing insecurity, and educational underfunding. I gradually realized that what I was feeling was a need to act, something that would grow more intense as I entered adulthood.

During the sophomore and junior summers of my undergraduate career at Cornell University, I served as a congressional intern through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Southfield, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. It was through this program that I was first able to witness the policy making process and its nuances, as well as how these processes can be used to eliminate racial disparities in basic needs. These experiences inspired me to apply for the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship.

Through the fellowship, I was placed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with the host organization Feeding South Dakota—the largest food bank in the state. Through the program, I conducted research and created a comprehensive spreadsheet on best practices for working with each member of the South Dakota state legislature. I also developed and presented a multi-year plan for implementing a Racial Equity framework into Feeding South Dakota’s programs and hiring processes. I had the pleasure of organizing and facilitating a focus group for people of color in Sioux Falls to express their opinions on how Feeding South Dakota could better serve BIPOC community members. All participants were compensated for their contribution. I wrote a report from the gathered statements and developed a 46- page guide on how to conduct similar focus groups in the future for my Hunger Free Community Report.

All these experiences were incredible and professionally enriching; however, the most challenging and enlightening aspect of my field site placement occurred in the quiet moments of personal maturation. I remember my first day touching down in Sioux Falls. It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and my Lyft driver dropped me off at what would become my new homebase—the Gateway Apartments. Only hours before, I was surrounded by familiar networks of family and friends, interconnected like the highways and busy roads that lined the Motor City. Now, I was greeted with haystacks that simmered beneath the summer sun and acres of farmland that stretched deep into the horizon, toward distant cities hundreds of miles away. A massive highway ran next to my apartment; however, even compared to Detroit’s minor streets, it was as notably quiet. I knew no one in this place, let alone this part of the county, and lunch time had already passed. I breathed in, dropped off my bags, and began my first trek across the highway bridge to the local Hy-Vee. “Oh yeah…this is different”, I thought to myself, as I braced the sun’s rays and waved hello to the elderly residents of the adjacent apartments.

Being a Black male from metro-Detroit living in South Dakota served to be a truly fascinating experience. During those months, I exercised my mind daily as I learned how to navigate the vastly different farming-based culture of the area, its customs, and cuisine. Life was much slower there, and I found my entertainment in long conversations with locals in the diners and bars that ranged from their brightest life lessons to their harshest experiences with hunger and loss. It was tough being so far away from family and friends; however, I was able to succeed in the fellowship and this unfamiliar environment through the greatest benefit I received in the fellowship—the support of my field site partner. My field site partner, Kenneth Palmer, helped give me the courage to brace the uncertainty of the experience, and appreciate the area’s incredible natural scenery. We supported each other during the best of times and the most challenging, and together formed a strategy on how to best assist the people of our new temporary home.

As much as I grew developing plans to help alleviate hunger and poverty in the area, I grew just as much as basking in the silent beauty of the Palisades and driving for hours through the vast rolling hills of the Great Plains, miles of corn and sargasso at my side. I learned how to lean on others in times of great loneliness, and how it feels to make a true friend. I got to know the city’s local Black and Native American leaders and immersed myself in the communities of color who strove every day to make the area a more racially equitable place. I felt the biting cold of a South Dakota winter, and the joy of bonding with fellows positioned all over the country. My experience in South Dakota helped me become a more resilient, fully realized person, and that experience is priceless.

I am now working at the Brookings Institution within the Valuing Black Assets Initiative, conducting research on the wellbeing of people of color throughout the United States. I have so far conducted literature reviews on best practices for connecting with Native American Tribes, the policy history of majority Black cities and census tracts in the state of my native Michigan, and the histories of Native American tribes in Southern California. I have also gathered information on the successes and weaknesses of various academic and political centers, and developed a racial equity component for the center assessment criteria. I am currently conducting research on whether Detroit’s recent economic revival has resulted in greater food security and sovereignty for the city’s Black population. D.C. is vastly different from South Dakota, and I am excited to see where this journey of growth will take me next.

About the Authors

French headshot

Nicholas French

Emerson Fellow

A resident of Southfield, Michigan, Nicholas French recently graduated from Cornell University with a major in Human Development and minors in Creative Writing and Law and Society. Nicholas’ passion for food justice and housing security began in his native Metro-Detroit, where he witnessed the hardships of hunger and the perseverance of the people who overcame it. Nicholas is especially proud of his experience as a Congressional Intern for the offices of former Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence and current Congressman Hank Johnson through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Through these experiences, Nicholas was able to conduct research on homelessness and basic needs in his community and provide resources for constituents affected by natural disasters and other issues, and he is excited to continue to grow as a leader.

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