This past semester I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about food issues in DC, through engaging with DC Central Kitchen and DC Food Policy Council. DC Food Policy Council. According to DC Hunger Solutions, of the 43 full-service grocery stores, only two are located in Ward 4, four in Ward 7, and three in Ward 8. By contrast, Ward 3 – the highest income Ward – has eleven full service stores. Wards 7 and 8 have the District’s highest poverty rates and highest obesity rates (http://www.dchunger.org/about/facts.html). DC Food Policy Council was created in 2014 to combat food issues in the city. The mayor appointed 13 members to serve on the board, ranging from nonprofit leaders, scholars, business owners and community members. The council has four working groups that tackle different issues: sustainable food procurement, local food business & labor development, urban agriculture & food system education, food equity, access, and health & nutrition education. The Council collects and analyzes data on the local food economy and recommends policy to “promote food access, food sustainability, and a local food economy in the District” (DC Food Policy website).
My first meeting was the Sustainable Food Procurement working group. The meeting consisted of people from different organizations like DC Greens and Dreaming Out Loud, self-described “food geeks,” and a few community members. Each strategic group had a short term and long-term goal as well as main mission. The bill that they were reviewing that day would loosen up restrictions on what food can be donated. This would lessen food waste and help food security. We had a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of best by, sell by, and use by dates. We also discussed the “Good Food Program.” This started in LA, and DC is looking to replicate this program. This would mean that every DC Public School would locally source their food. At the last meeting they reviewed what the program was and assigned tasks to every person at the meeting. It was clearly a community effort and the work relied on the willingness of the members. The next working group meeting I attended was the local food business & labor development. We discussed the Cottage Food Act, which pertains to people making food in their house and selling it online without inspection of their house.
I also spent my time volunteering at DC Central Kitchen, an incredible non-profit that aims to break the cycle of hunger and poverty through “innovated social ventures” (DCCK website). The most interesting thing that happened whilst volunteering for DCCK happened on my way to the site for my second shift. Having already volunteered once before at a different location, I didn’t look at where exactly the kitchen was. As I rode the escalator out of the Judiciary Square station I typed in DC Central Kitchen into my maps and strolled through the streets. I came to a large building with no clear markings. People hung out outside having conversations with each other, not paying much attention to me. I remembered from the volunteer intro video that the main kitchen lay under the largest shelter in America. This must be it. There were no signs for the kitchen so I walked up the block, pulling up the email with directions. Two men stood against the wall of the building conversing. A black man running up and down the street exercising past me. I stood on the corner and called Mariah, who I was meeting for lunch. The running man asked me if I was lost, I smiled, laughing, and explained that I was, but my friend had given me directions, and now I knew where to go. He stood with his feet wide and raised his arms in front of him to mimic holding a gun.
“You’re not welcome here”.
It was cold out that day and my eyes had been watering from the wind. The stoplight changed and cars rushed past us. A lanky white woman with a knitted hat aged 22, trying to ignore the fact that a black man in his 30s was aiming an imaginary rifle in intimidation at her. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t a white gentrifier taking over the neighborhood. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t attempting to tell him how to live his life. I wanted to tell him that I was a student currently learning about gentrification in DC. I wanted to tell him that I worked for a syringe exchange service and provided health services judgment-free to sex workers, drug users, and those experiencing homelessness. I wanted to tell him that yesterday I had shared an article about police brutality in DC. I wanted to tell him that one time I went to a Standing up For Racial Justice meeting. I wanted to tell him that I was on his side. But what does any of that mean?
I said I’m sorry and continued walking.
“For being here.”
I was aware of me whiteness, my femininity, my class, my privilege and the space that I was taking up. I was aware of the number of people that flood to that corner every week to ‘save the community’ to ‘feed the poor’. To feel complacent in a system built to oppress, to feel justified to continue living the way they do, the way I do. And I was just another one of them. Even if I wanted to explain that I wasn’t, I was. A white family walked behind me in colorful Washington DC hats, they asked if I was okay. I assured them that I was fine. And I was fine. I didn’t take this personally. I attempted to empathize with him. This man didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him either. I assumed him to be a man, assumed him to be black, assumed him to have some disorder as he had pointed an imaginary gun at me, which in all honesty was extremely terrifying. I knew there was nothing there but there was something about that situation that haunts me. It would have been different if he had just yelled that. But that imaginary gun, he believed in it, and so did I. The motion was so deliberate that I had put my hands up, showing my empty palms.
I don’t share this interaction to incite sympathy for myself, or try to pretend I’m a victim or that I’m tough or with it. I share this interaction because it needs to be asked: what does this interaction have to do with food & agriculture? And what is the larger context? For one, it reminds me of the distinction between intent and impact. I have great intentions but I must be aware of my impact as well. I want to help with DC’s food insecurity, but I have to interrogate why I want to help and how. No one knows the issue better than those experiencing it. I need to ensure I am lifting up voices that have been oppressed, listening to the solutions that the community is proposing, be in touch with the already existing networks that are fighting for access to healthy foods. I need to be aware of saviorism, of the white man’s burden, of histories of colonialism and the way they manifest today. It reminds me that you can’t talk about food issues without talking about labor issues and identities and race and class and politics and history. I wanted so badly for that man to know that I understand, but in reality, do I truly understand?