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Ed Pratt

“I’m proud of myself because, at first, I didn’t want to do this topic, but afterward, I was happy to be put in this group. And I was happy to have had this opportunity.”

That was Antoinette Hodges, a student at McKinley High School, who was part of a team of four other 11th grade students that spent this past fall semester trying to set a plan in motion to build a grocery store in the Old South Baton Rouge community near the campus. The major goal was to find a way for residents to have easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

The students met with community leaders, government officials and went knocking on doors in the neighborhood. They discovered that the needs there are greater and more complex than ripe tomatoes. This kind of education is more than textbook theory. It's real life.

The school’s "Humanities Amped" class instructors Anna West and Malcolm Reed asked if I had an idea for a project for the students. I broached the idea of bringing a grocery store to Old South Baton Rouge.

The students — Hodges, Steven Miranda, Said McLaughlin, Tye’le James and Trent Roberston — came on board. They were a little hesitant at first, but slowly got in the groove. Then I took a back seat.

None of the students live or have lived in the community near the high school. Their project points to what high school students can do if they're pointed in the right direction. The class helps students use insights from the humanities, like English and social studies, to create research projects that improve the community.

It was inspiring to see young people dissecting real-life situations and challenging themselves to create solutions.

What the students did in such a short time is remarkable. Discussions with city government representatives, business people, community activists, suggested that bringing even a small grocery store to the neighborhood would be challenging, but not impossible.

They learned from residents that they need fresh vegetables, but also a place close by where they can get prescriptions filled and find more affordable child care. They also want blighted housing removed more quickly.

There were discussions about just finding a means of getting fresh vegetables — good food — through temporary outlets that would operated much like food trucks. But the students said they wanted to see how some of the corner stores already in the neighborhood can become part of the effort.

Once a thriving area of the city, historic Old South Baton Rouge has fallen on hard times. There are a number of blighted homes and trash-loaded vacant lots. There are no major supermarkets in the area. Finding fresh vegetables and fruit means a trip elsewhere.

“I didn’t notice the food insecurities until this project opened my eyes,” James said.

He was followed by Miranda, who said, “I learned about what it’s like not having healthy food options. From the canvassing, I also learned about how they (the residents) want teen activities” in the neighborhood.

James had an interesting take on things. “I would say my feelings about the community are strong … I say that because I started to put a lot of time into trying to help the community. I just want them to at least try and help themselves.”

Now the class members hope another set of students will pick up where they left off.

“Another group of students can push the project to the finish line. We have given them a great foundation. Now they need to build upon it,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s dad, Walter “Geno" McLaughlin, with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, was a major contributor to the project, offering valuable ideas and direction as well as connecting students with local governmental representatives and community members.

The young McLaughlin also added, “I learned that the youth need to be the ones doing and participating in community work because we can give different insights to the problem.”

“I’ve seen how we affect the community with our project,” Robertson said. “I feel a level of responsibility to help the community.”

Hodges made me smile with this observation: “I learned that people really care about their community. I also learned that young people are important and that they have a voice.”

Amen and Amen.

Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at epratt1972@yahoo.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column was corrected because student Trent Robertson was misidentified.