What do slam poetry, urban poverty, and healthy food have in common?

Attendees at Natural Products Expo West 2014 found out when Clint Smith, a teacher and poet who works in Washington, D.C., performed his evocative piece, Place Matters (read the poem below).

During the “Food Access and the Role of the Natural Foods Industry” seminar, Smith told how he “haphazardly” got involved with food justice “as I was driving to school and seeing more liquor stores than grocery stores.”

“I try to use poetry as a means to humanize social issues,” he said. “Often these conversations happen at a meta- or a policy level, which is important, but we can lose a sense of who we’re actually talking about. We get so caught up in journals, budgets, and numbers that we lose the sense that, man, cutting $7-8 billion from SNAP is taking food off my students’ plates.”

Simply reading these words moved me to tears. Watch the live TEDx performance:

Place Matters

As a child, 

my father would tell me stories
of ancient Egyptian warriors

traveling for endless days and nights
across infinite desert plains

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 it is not the one I envisioned.

A food desert

is categorized as a poor urban area
where residents cannot afford or are not given access
to healthy foods 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 are playing an everlasting game
of hide and go seek

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

that I am not too far from the deserts
I once dreamed of.

See, whether Anacostia or the Sahara 

it doesn't make much difference
because to these grocery stores

Southeast D.C. is no different than the Serengeti.
are nothing more than walking cacti,
just a piece of the scenery this world 
has taught everyone to stay away from.


literally has a landfill in her backyard

so she has a hard time

convincing herself the world doesn't just think she's trash.
Restaurants come and dump out the remains of food
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,

my warriors,
fighting a battle against an enemy
they cannot clearly see.

These kings and queens, 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 place doesn't matter—

that the neighborhoods that are predominantly healthy
aren’t the ones that are predominantly wealthy.

‘Cause 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.
And their lives are worth far more

than the things this world has fed them.

© 2013 Clint Smith