From farm to table and schools to consumers, our interest in and understanding of food systems has grown exponentially over the last ten or so years, thanks in no small part to championing voices such as Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan. And if you’re like me, you might find yourself coming across some of the same names and advocates over and over again.
One of those is DC Greens, a local nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by Lauren Schweder Biel, who had started a farmers market, and Sarah Holway, a teacher involved in the White House Kitchen Garden, and currently doing amazing transformative work focusing on food education, access and policy in the District.
As Lillie Rosen, DC Greens’ food access director explains, although we have made major progress in our understanding of food systems, we still have a long way to go. Consider, for example, that Ward 8 has only one full-service grocery store, whereas Ward 3 has 11.
This disparity in access correlates strongly to disparities in health outcomes. While Washington, DC, on the whole, is ranked second in health outcomes among US states, a closer look reveals that Wards 5, 7 and 8 all have outcomes closer to that of West Virginia, at the very bottom of the rankings. Additionally, I was stunned to learn that recent statistics show that in Wards 7 and 8 the top two causes of death are violent assault and diabetes. We can do better. “We have lots of work to do to make sure our food system is inclusive to all residents and not just those who live next to a grocery store or have access to a car,” says Rosen.
Summer is a fantastic time for farmers markets and fresh fruits and vegetables, but many of the District’s residents are limited in their access to these vital resources by economic hardship or lack of physical access to healthy food options. Much of the District continues to have food deserts (areas lacking any access to food options) as well as food swamps (areas where the majority of available food options are lacking in quality nutritive value). Meanwhile, it’s estimated that over 180,000 people qualify for food assistance programs in DC based on Medicaid.
Among its different food access offerings, DC Greens offers residents two summer programs to address this need: Produce Plus, which gives DC residents who receive Medicaid, SNAP and others $10 weekly to spend on fresh produce at farmers markets, and the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, through which residents can receive prescriptions from their doctors for free produce at local farmers markets, “farmacies,” if you will.
Rosen shares, “People really do want to have access.” With nearly 4,000 customers in the Produce Plus Program this year, many lining up before markets even open, it’s clear that DC residents are very much interested in participating to improve their health. The Prescription Program, which is tailored for low-income residents experiencing chronic illness, is in its fifth season, with five participating clinics and others calling weekly with interest in future participation.
For Rosen, this work is an outgrowth of her Jewish upbringing. She finds it particularly appealing that there are many different ways, and what she describes as a “Talmudic opportunity,” to continue to question and find new and better solutions to problems through collaboration with community members, government officials and others working on similar issues nationwide.
Personally, although I have been writing about food and social justice for several years now, I am still constantly amazed at the colossal shifts taking place all around us in micro and macro food systems.
DC Greens is looking for approximately 500 volunteers this summer/fall to help with its food access programs at local farmers markets across the District. Since markets operate mostly during the day, Tuesday to Sunday, flexible work schedules, such as those of graduate students, retirees and professional volunteers, are ideal. The commitment is five shifts during the season with each lasting about three to four hours. The initial volunteer training takes only an hour, and trainings are held once a week. DC Greens strives to match volunteers to their community market, although the hardest to fill are the weekday markets such as Arcadia’s Mobile Market at LeDroit Park and the FRESHFARM Markets at Penn Quarter, City Center and the White House. Individuals with language skills in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Amharic, Vietnamese or American Sign Language are especially welcome.