Twin City should crow less, do more

by Jim Longworth

2011 seems to have been a banner year for Winston- Salem. Bloomberg named Winston the 10th most affordable and fun city in the nation. said it’s the 10th best place to retire, a sentiment echoed by Business Week named Winston- Salem the 46th overall best city in America, and just named Winston the second-best city in the country.

Yes, according to these and other surveys, Winston-Salem is a virtual Garden of Eden, replete with myriad arts venues, low housing costs, a per capita income of $35,481 and four colleges and universities. City and county officials have been crowing about these impressive honors, as well they should. But I’d feel better if we’d all crow a bit less until we can do more to make the area better for everyone.

The irony of this was never felt more than the day Rand McNally named Winston-Salem one of the most livable cities in America. Later that same week, Gallup released a report for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in which Winston-Salem was named the worst metro area in the nation for childhood hunger. Specifically, 35 percent of Twin City households with children said there were times when they did not have enough money to buy food. Meanwhile, 53.2 percent of students in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County school system are receiving free or reduced price lunches, and in 13 of 43 elementary schools, at least nine out of 10 students are receiving those subsidized lunches. It should come as no surprise, then, that these same kids lack good nutrition on weekends and in summer months when school is not in session.

Even worse, the week that the Gallup report was released, shelves were nearly bare at the Second Harvest Food Bank. The recession has hit our area very hard, and the combination of high unemployment and ongoing childhood hunger has left the Food Bank struggling to meet a growing need. To his credit, Executive Director Clyde Fitzgerald has a summer food collection drive in place, and also coordinates with more than 60 schools to provide at-risk youth with four nutritious meals every weekend of the year. But as Clyde told me, the population they are helping is just a drop in the bucket to those who need food.

It may not be a pleasant topic for conversation among those who conduct livability polls, but hunger is a key indicator of what a locality is really like, and it’s the kind of problem that Rand McNally and others choose to ignore when heaping praise on metro areas around the country. Hunger is a byproduct of poverty, and poverty is a byproduct of unemployment, which is a byproduct of plant closings, which in turn, means less revenue for local, state and federal government, which this year had to reduce emergency food assistance funds for the Triad by 38 percent.

Winston-Salem, like most cities, is in denial about the underlying cause of our socioeconomic crisis, and it’s high time for all of us to face facts. Yes, housing in the Twin City is affordable, but that’s because thousands of sellers are upsidedown in homes they can no longer afford because they are out of work.

Yes, we have three state-of-the-art hospitals here, but not one elected official from North Carolina has lifted a finger to lobby for a cap on health-insurance premiums, so AC- CESS to healthcare is a moot point. Yes, we have great colleges, but local politicians refused to allocate one penny of the Dell refund money to prevent teacher layoffs, which signals that public schools are not a top priority and that politicians generally don’t understand that education is economic development.

Worst of all, none of the Triad’s local, state or federal officials have called for repeal and reform of our nation’s trade agreements, which provide loopholes to greedy companies, which are rewarded for closing plants here and opening new ones in third-world countries. That’s because we all want corporate money when it comes time to build theaters and support professional tennis tournaments. The problem is that operas and pro tennis matches neither attract nor help hungry children or unemployed adults.

I was born and reared in Winston-Salem, and I have a close affection for the Twin City, but so long as one child is going hungry, we have no right to brag about how great we are. It’s time for both the public and private sectors to redirect their efforts and funds so that childhood hunger is eliminated.

Then we’ll really have something to crow about.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).