How D.C. (and the Rest of the Country) Can Eliminate Food Deserts

Washington, D.C. sports its proud identity as the nation’s capital, but it also suffers the typical problems of urban blight, including food deserts, impoverished areas with limited access to healthy food. Almost 16,000 people reside in such food deserts within the city.

Fortunately, a number of forward-thinking organizations have resolved to end food insecurity in the nation’s capital through food access, affordability, and community education. As a result, D.C. capitalizes on its dual local/national character and acts as a role model for initiatives that support access to good food throughout the nation.

How do we lead the shift from processed, unhealthy products to fresh, nutritious food? While accessibility and affordability are certainly crucial, community education is a key component, notes Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Michael Babin, and founder of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture.

In a comprehensive solution, Arcadia will launch a mobile farmers’ market, a yellow school bus retrofitted to carry about 50 crates of fresh produce. The mobile market will educate schools and neighborhoods on healthy food choices, traveling to food deserts filled with fast food restaurants and convenience stores. In a counter-intuitive business strategy, the long-term goal of the mobile farmers’ market is to become obsolete, by encouraging grocery stores to open in low-income areas.

Two traditional farmers’ markets are playing their part as well. Both the long-established Ward 8 Farmers’ Market and the Aya Community Market (launching at the end of this month), provide fresh produce while empowering local residents and entrepreneurs to participate in local commerce. Chris Bradshaw, Executive Director of Dreaming Out Loud, founded Aya Community Market as a self-sustaining enterprise, empowering high school students, formerly incarcerated residents, and low-income members of the community to claim ownership of their marketplace through employment at it. Aya Community Market accepts EBT food vouchers, and to increase buying power, vendors at Ward 8 Farmers’ Market markets will double the value of SNAP, EBT, WIC or senior food vouchers, up to $10.

As the idea of food access becomes visibly linked with community empowerment, economy, and health, farmers’ markets emerge from the grass-roots movement with a holistic focus. Aya Community Market provides services for spiritual and financial health, such as yoga and credit counseling. Live music, acupuncture, and cooking demos are also offered as an integral part of the plan to educate and include community members. DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), an organization committed to strengthening DC’s local food system through food distribution, job training, and community-building projects, is present in its community through a culinary training program.

The Culinary Jobs Training Program is a 12-week program, which trains unemployed, previously incarcerated, and homeless adults in the skills necessary to rise out of poverty. It also coaches students on basic life skills, such as résumé writing and computer literacy. DCCK was also selected to run a pilot program to provide made-from-scratch meals for seven public elementary schools in food deserts.

These initiatives have been hugely successful in improving the quality and nutrition of school lunches, and the quality of life for at-risk populations. In elementary schools, DCCK’s pilot program meals are complemented by hands-on learning experiences through local farms, cooking clubs, and the use of composting bins. When an 11-year old student told his parents that they “must go shopping every weekend to buy vegetables like they have at school,” Michael Curtin, Executive Director of DCCK, saw this as a great measure of success.

Targeting institutions and retail markets is a smart strategy for reaching large audiences in need of healthy food. Schools are one such building block, supermarkets are another. To encourage existing retailers to stock fresh food, the Ward 8 Farmers’ Market, DC Hunger Solutions (DCHS) and DCCK are involved with convenience stores. DCHS conducted the Healthy Corner Store Program in DC food deserts for two years, but due to lack of funding, the pilot was halted about 18 months ago.

Thanks to new funding from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), DCCK is launching the more expansive Healthy Corners Program, and will use their resources to provide a larger distribution network of affordable produce and more comprehensive business development assistance. The program will also purchase produce from local farmers and employ graduates from their Culinary Job Training Program. DCCK has wisely engaged DCHS as a partner, who is lending their expertise and community connections from their pilot program to DCCK’s outreach efforts and store owner training activities. Participating retailers will receive refrigerated display cases and fresh food deliveries, and can return unsold items, creating a zero-waste solution. This means convenience stores can stock fruits and vegetables without the threat of financial loss.

The city continues to make healthy food and access to it a priority. Food Day, a nationwide event to be held on October 24, 2011, aims to expand access to healthy food and alleviate hunger. This event provides opportunities for everyone to participate in and contribute to their local good food movement with organizational and administrative support on a national level.

In February 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “Our goal is ambitious. It’s to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years.” She is making great strides with her Let’s Move campaign. This week, she announced a $35 million commitment by the administration, a 2012 budget proposal of an additional $330 million, and a plan to use such funds to leverage additional financial support from the private and non-profit sectors.

In support of the First Lady’s campaign, retail giants Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and SuperValu, along with regional retailers have committed to open or expand over 1,500 stores to bring more healthy, fresh food to areas with limited access. The First Lady said that such commitments can be a “game-changer” for underserved communities across the country. Her call to action requires vision and initiatives such as these to change a food system. In Washington, D.C, commitments to achieve such goals by forward-thinking organizations has established a barometer for healthy, sustainable food solutions around the country.

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