April 22, 2010

Food Access Solutions: Panel Discussion in Anacostia

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

On Friday, April 12th, Food Access Solutions: Urban Agriculture, Local Food, & Community Development, a panel discussion between leaders in the food movement on a regional level and leaders on the local level took place in southeast Washington D.C. in Anacostia. My interest in Urban Agriculture comes from my desire to integrate schools and students with the urban ag movement, but within the specific process comes issues of food access, food security, job promotion, economic and community development. These were all issues that the panels addressed with exciting stories from the trenches of urban agriculture programs and new ideas. In the end, what I took away was a sense that the food movement is maturing with the scope of ideas that are now being talked about consistently and without hesitation. Ideas like partnering with local chefs and restaurants, expanding the number of concentration of farm stands and markets and focusing on community empowerment from the inside and putting the power, leadership and responsibility for urban food production into the hands of those that are affected.

Food access was the topic of discussion and organizers decided to have the event in what is considered a current “food desert” in Washington D.C. to illustrate the need for discussion about food access. Alexandra Ashbrook of DC Hunger Solutions stated that in the richest part of DC there is a full service supermarket for every 7,000 residents, while in Ward 8 where the discussion was held, there was one full service “Giant” supermarket that serves all 70,000 residents of Ward 8. Last month at the DC Healthy Schools Act hearing, I listened to Marion Barry, the city councilman from Ward 8 discuss the closing down of the Ward 8 Farmer’s Market limiting access to healthy foods even further.

The first panel consisted of the following speakers:
• Robert Egger (DC Central Kitchen)
• Michael Heller (Clagett Farm)
• Carolina Valencia (Social Compact)
• Malik Yakini (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network)
• Maurice Smalls (City Fresh, Cleveland, OH)

Much of the discussion focused on issues of race and power, not only within the communities that the panelists served, but within the food movement itself. Malik Yakini, currently working in Detroit for the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network posed some challenging questions to the audience. He is operating within the context of Detroit, what he claims is the most segregated city in the nation. He said, white supremacy exists within our food system, but it also exists in the food justice and food security movement. He talked about looking at the organizations associated with the food movement and seeing most of the leadership being well-intentioned young, white individuals, mostly women. His organization is attempting to place blacks in those leadership roles. He posed an honest question to the audience, “How can we shift the power from those that currently have it, to those that should have it?”

It brings up an interesting question for those of us working with communities of color and low-income communities. What is the role of outsiders in the urban agriculture food movement. That question itself was posed to the panel and the audience and the general consensus was that outside individuals should come into communities with a sense of humility, a goal of empowering the local community and a long-term goal or working oneself out of a job. It goes back to a quote I’ve heard several times and I’ll credit Mark Winne, “the most important word in community garden isn’t ‘garden.’” I’ve seen some of these same issues first-hand with my work in Richmond, Calif, so I know that the racial issues within the work to change the food system do exist and they aren’t easy fixes. They are the same issues that public health has been grappling with for decades about when and how to intervene in communities from the outside. At every step of the way, organizations need to me looking for “openings” to empower the members of the community. They do come, but the leadership must take them and to be fair, many organization think deeply about these issues and work very hard to alter the dynamic that Malik Yakini was directly addressing.

Maurice Smalls from “City Fresh” in Cleveland discussed his work with urban youth and described a wonderful program where urban youth connect with the chefs of local restaurants in a collaboration that begins to answer the question that so many of us who believe in urban agriculture with youth begin to ask. Are we doing kids a disservice by educating them about urban agriculture, should they not just be hitting the books and getting ready to go to college? Where are the ultimate jobs that come from this? This program in Cleveland begins with the youth learning all the names and identification of all the vegetables that are used by local restaurants. This is an incredibly important step, I mean, what 16-year-old urban youth knows what kohlrabi is anyway? The next step is learning to grow that food that the restaurants need, which answers the question, can you grow what I need on a consistent basis with good quality? And the final step is becoming a buyer for the chef and the restaurant itself and answers the question, can you go out on your own and find the things I need to have a successful business? Imagine teenagers flooding the city’s farmers markets working as weekly buyers for the best restaurants in your city. Would they be healthier? More empowered? How many would go on to become chefs? Own restaurants? Whether or not you like this model, what it demonstrates to me is the limitless possibilities as urban agriculture and youth mature together.

Last, but not least, Robert Eggers of DC Kitchen addressed the audience with a call to “dismantle the charitable system” that has developed over the last 40 years and replace it with a system based on empowering communities and economic development for all. He talked about how much charitable giving has increased over the last four decades, but he says those feelings are misdirected. He looked towards the 60,000 school cafeterias and kitchens that lay empty at night and on the weekends and asked a prescient question. Why couldn’t those kitchens be used as an economic engine for programs to run cooking classes, meal programs? Why couldn’t schools teach students to cook food and take that food home to families that may not be food secure? Why couldn’t that be a business opportunity for people? That turns charity into empowerment.

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