Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Lauren Shweder Biel, the Executive Director of DC Greens (a nonprofit that uses the power of partnerships to support food education, food access and food policy in D.C.).
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Lauren Shweder Biel (LSB): It’s such a cliché, but reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is really what got me thinking about food systems. After reading that, I decided to start a farmers market in my neighborhood. It was something concrete that I could do. I was soon introduced to the D.C. Farmers Market Collaborative and started to be in dialogue with markets across the city. Advocating on behalf of that collaborative for increased city investment in nutrition incentives at farmers markets is really what propelled me into the thick of our city’s food policy and food access conversations.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
LSB: There are many pressing and interrelated food policy issues facing us right now. It is imperative that we figure out how to get sufficient healthy food access points into places like Wards 7 and 8 in D.C., a food desert where three grocery stores are serving over 100,000 people. The fact that food-related chronic illnesses are plaguing communities of color in the nation’s capital is shameful. The diabetes rate in D.C.’s Ward 8 is three times higher than in Ward 3. I believe that this glaring disparity offers an opportunity to fix the food system. People want healthy food. It will take an increased investment from local and state governments to guarantee a healthy food stream for all people. We expect this sort of investment for clean water. Ensuring that people have access to foods that don’t make them sick deserves a similar investment.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
LSB: I’m particularly excited about D.C.’s Produce Plus Program, which allows anyone in the District on Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, TANF, or SSI Disability to get US$10 in fruits and vegetables every week at any of the 53 farmers markets. We have seen tremendous community demand for the program, and the revenue stream from the city is allowing markets to open and expand in low-access areas. It is essentially a marketing tool, but it has been working. And as a tool, it can be applied in the future to other food access points beyond farmers markets. Produce Plus is an effective, market-based solution that I believe has the potential to change the food access landscape in the District of Columbia.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
LSB: I once heard Michel Nischan (the CEO, founder, and president of Wholesome Wave) say, “Throughout history, revolutions have been started by hungry people. In our country, we’ve found a way to keep people full but not nourished.” I’ve been inspired by that idea because it means that the revolution is not coming. I think that it’s all of our jobs to create this revolution. There are so many people who are engaged with this issue across the country from different sectors – schools, farms, farmers markets, health institutions, nonprofits, community activists, urban farmers, government agencies – everybody wants to fix this issue. One of the things that DC Greens does is sit between these actors and do the work of collaboration that amplifies everyone’s collective impact. It is going to take all of us to make the revolution that builds a healthy food system.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
LSB: I love fixing problems. And I love working with partners to fix those problems. When we can come together to vocalize collective issues and identify solutions, that’s when I feel best about the work I’m doing.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
LSB: I think we’ve done a good job of breaking down silos within the food system and recognizing that all nodes are interrelated. I think the most pressing issue now is recognizing and addressing the intersection of food with other social issues: poverty, employment, structural racism. This means we have to set a bigger table and engage with advocates in other silos.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
LSB: I think that the “one small change” is something that each person really needs to answer for themselves. Through our work at DC Greens, we try to provide opportunities for community members to get involved, whether that’s by getting to know the farmers who grow their food, or volunteering to support nutrition incentive programs like DC’s Produce Plus Program, or supporting the garden at your neighborhood school. The small choice of getting involved in your local food movement, however you can, matters. But I never get on a soapbox around how people can best get involved, because I believe that people’s circumstances really dictate what makes the most sense for them.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
LSB: I want the connection between healthy food access and preventative health to be a truth that we take to be self-evident. This would mean investment and policy on the local and federal level to fix our nation’s health epidemic with increased access to healthy foods, instead of increased access to dialysis clinics.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
LSB: I think the case has been made strongly by others within the food movement that our current subsidy system for farms that grow monoculture crops contributes to the degradation of our food supply by creating cheap foods that are fueling the nation’s diabetes epidemic. It’s also time that urban agriculture be taken seriously by the USDA. I hope that the next Farm Bill puts real dollars towards the development of diversified urban food production.
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