The JHSPH Center for Adolescent Health and the youth at HeartSmiles won the Urban Health Institute’s 2020 Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award for their Granny Project effort to reduce food insecurity among youth in Baltimore.
Henrietta Lacks was a Black Baltimore native and Johns Hopkins patient. Without her consent or knowledge Johns Hopkins’ doctors and researchers collected and harvested her cells. While her cell line continues to produce life-saving medical advancements, her story is just one example of how public health and medical systems have historically taken advantage of and often abused African-American communities. The award is part of Johns Hopkins efforts to correct past mistakes and build a stronger Baltimore in partnership with the communities of the city.
With 25 percent of Baltimore youth facing food insecurity, HeartSmiles founder Joni Holifield met with CAH Director Tamar Mendelson, associate professor Kristin Mmari and Community Relations Director Katrina Brooks to find ways to involve the city’s young people in researching the extent of the problem and finding solutions.
“It’s really important that we don’t try to solve the problems facing young people without having young people be part of the discussion,” Mendelson said.
Members of the CAH Youth Advisory Board and the young people at HeartSmiles known as Heartbeats were trained and conducted qualitative research with their peers. They found that many young people facing food insecurity in Baltimore commit crimes including armed robbery and prostitution to eat.
The youth also developed the Granny Project that serves as a safe space for Baltimore young people to deal with food insecurity and connects them with community elders who give cooking lessons on how to prepare cheap, healthy family meals.
“Our job was to make it a safe home or safe place for people to talk to us about what their going through; talk to us about how they may not know what they’re going to eat that night,” said Heartbeat and Granny Project member Summer Rhoades.
Summer said working on the project changed her from an introvert to an active leader among her peers. She credits that to HeartSmiles.
“It showed me it doesn’t matter where you’re from, this program helps you get to where you want to be,” she said.
Holifield started HeartSmiles in the wake of the unrest following the death of Freddy Grey while in the custody of Baltimore police as she recognized the frustration and heartache in the young people from the community she grew up in.
While Mendelson, Brooks, Mmari and almost anyone who has worked with her sings her praises, Holifield insists receiving the award and the success of HeartSmiles goes to the “Heartbeats who are helping to move Baltimore forward.”
“I have a hard time taking the credit because I feel like I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Holifield said. “I know the young people in our charge right now are truly going to be the leaders of this world.”
The Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award also includes a $15,000 prize.