Campus News

Student film highlights food insecurity, mass incarceration issues in South Madison

Nyal Mueenuddinn and Mattie Naythons interviewed subjects for their film "Break the Cycle," a documentary they created for a course that focuses on the connections between food insecurity and racial inequality.

Image By: Courtesy of Nyal Mueenuddinn and Mattie Naythons

What started as a capstone project for a class became two students’ mission to bring equality to South Madison residents.

After eight months of production, UW-Madison students Nyal Mueenuddinn and Mattie Naythons announced they were ready to share their documentary film with the student body. Last Friday, the pair held one of the first screenings of the film, titled “Break the Cycle.”

This project originated from a service-learning capstone course, Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison. In this course offered by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, students were tasked with collaborating with South Madison community partners, including Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and Neighborhood Food Solutions, to address the interconnected issues of food insecurity, racial inequality and urban agriculture.

In Fall 2016, Mueenuddin came into the course with a very distinct idea of how he would contribute to this project.

“There was one word in the syllabus which was 'we'll create some product' and I saw that as an opportunity,” Mueenuddin said.

He believed that film was the perfect medium for communicating their message because “it's able to break down barriers that exist between people by allowing people to share each other's stories and voices with each other that you wouldn't otherwise hear."

Course instructors Alfonso Morales, a professor of urban and regional planning, and Dadit Hidayat, a doctoral student in environment and resources, quickly approved this idea and Mueenuddin started to work. He assembled a team of five other students, including Naythons, who were also enrolled in the course and they began to build the concept for the film.

In the following semester, both Mueenuddin and Naythons said they felt like their work was not quite finished. Ultimately, they decided to continue what they started as an independent study, in order to give the community something that they felt it deserved.

“My primary motivation was to give a voice to these members of the community that didn't have a voice,” Naythons said.

Their ambition to expand this project manifested itself through investigations into two larger issues existing within South Madison: mass incarceration and food injustice.

This project partnership between Nehemiah and the Nelson Institute aims to tackle these issues by providing ex-prisoners an opportunity to build skills and earn wages while working in the urban agriculture industry. But the key feature is that this partnership simultaneously provides healthy, organic food for the South Madison Farmer’s Market, which hasn’t traditionally been available to this neighborhood.

For Naythons, it was vital to inform the public about the lack of food accessibility in South Madison.

"South Madison is a food desert and a lot of people don't know that. We have Fresh Market and things like that, [but] that community down there doesn't have anything like that,” Naythons said.

Both Mueenuddin and Naythons said they believe connecting the student body to the local community is an important next step to advance this project and continue their legacy.

The two said they publicized this film with the primary intention of creating awareness and generating discussion, not only within the university population but also between the Madison community and the university campus. Additional screenings and panels will be held on campus and throughout Madison.

The filmmaking process might be finished, but Mueenuddin and Naythons said the work to solve South Madison’s issues of mass incarceration and food justice is just getting started.

"We hope to just plant the seed and hope that people will reach out to each other and try to learn more," Mueenuddin said.

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