On Wednesday evening, Washington, D.C.’s newly minted Food Policy Council held its inaugural meeting. Nutritionist, culinary historian, and NativSol Kitchen founder Tambra Raye Stevenson made it her personal goal as a Council Member to create “a new army of food fighters.”
The town hall-style gathering of the Council featured celebrity chef, D.C. restaurateur, and Council Chair Spike Mendelsohn. Food Policy Director Laine Cidlowski of the DC Office of Planning outlined the Council’s mission, working groups, and long-term deliverables. The ten Council Members are an eclectic group with a wide range of policy priorities. Each member was given the opportunity to introduce themselves and their collective goals for the Council.
According to Cidlowski, the District faces a serious set of challenges intertwined with success stories. One in three D.C. residents is at risk of hunger, and the most food-insecure areas are becoming more concentrated. At the same time, the 68-square-mile district has nine commercial farms and five year-round farmer’s markets. Even before the establishment of the Food Policy Council through the DC Office of Sustainability, in recent years, the local government has placed an emphasis on developing the local food economy. Additionally, the Sustainable DC plan includes three long-term food policy goals.
As each of the Council Members presented their policy priorities and members of the public participated in informal discussion, three major themes emerged:
Local Economic Development
After school food vendor Chartwells was forced to pay US$19 million to the city for falsifying invoices, the DC Council approved a US$35 million contract with Sodexo for the upcoming school year. The choice to outsource school food to a single large vendor, with the exception of a dozen schools in Ward 7, has ignited controversy for the lack of emphasis on healthy meals and local sourcing. Council Member Alex Ashbrook of DC Hunger Solutions noted that the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) generates US$1.79 of economic activity for every dollar spent, yet D.C. loses much of this local economic development opportunity because of food deserts in high-poverty areas. Echoing this sentiment, Union Kitchen co-founder and Council Member Jonas Singer stressed, “Money is creeping out of D.C. We need to keep money here in our city by encouraging diverse ownership of businesses.” Singer will be working on the Local Food Business and Labor Development working group this upcoming fall.
Other Council Members advocated sharing D.C.’s food economy successes. Caesar Layton, a food business-focused venture capitalist, urged, “We need to take stock of innovation. We should recognize and share our successes as best practices for the broader community.” Alexander Moore of DC Central Kitchen also challenged the council to “be a megaphone and put D.C. on the map when it comes to food policy.”
Gentrification and Food Justice
Despite Cidlowski’s claims that food insecure areas of D.C. are shrinking, gentrification may be masking the severity of the problem. As the poorest members of the community are forced out of the city and replaced by wealthier residents, food insecurity is not dissolved, but rather displaced. One of the Sustainable DC goals is for 75 percent of residents to live within a quarter mile of healthy and affordable food supplies. While certainly a laudable objective, public attendees questioned the Council’s short-term goals. One attendee noted that in the interim sixteen years an entire generation would grow up in food insecure areas and total gentrification could be completed in that time. Council Member and activist Jeremiah Lowery called for community participation and making sure those who are most affected by food policy have the opportunity to participate in its creation. He even suggested going out into the community to ensure that critical voices are heard. Mendelsohn, too, made the elimination of food deserts a priority, citing the missed opportunities in job creation and development.
Utilizing Existing Policies
Several Council Members, including Chair Mendelsohn, mentioned the need to take advantage of existing policy structures and ensure that Federal funding is capitalized on. Council Member Joelle Robinson cited the Cottage Food Act as an example of an unclear policy, while Ashbrook proposed leveraging the use of key Federal nutrition programs like the DC Free Summer Meal Program. Paula Reichel, advocacy director of the Capital Area Food Bank, suggested exploring involvement in innovative U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot programs.
Expanding urban agriculture was also touched on by multiple Council Members. Another Sustainable DC goal is to increase urban agriculture within D.C. by 20 acres. Chris Bradshaw of Dreaming out Loud recommended clarifying which parcels of land are available for cultivation under the Urban Farm and Food Security Act. Robinson also noted the need to define the process for accessing urban agricultural land and lifting existing policies for local economic development.
Food Policy Council working groups will continue exploring these issues throughout the fall. Working group meetings are open to the public. More information on upcoming meetings can be found on the new DC Food Policy council website.