Updates for Nutrition Education
A recent Washington Post opinion piece calling for a national food policy put foodies, health advocates, policy wonks, and political partisans on notice. In “How a national food policy could save millions of American lives” authors Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter took the United States to task for failing to set an overarching vision for the most fundamental determinant of our daily health:—“how we produce and consume food.” They urged the US to embrace a more strategic, coherent approach, and stop undermining our own progress through contradictory stances that advance “diametrically opposed goals.” The miniature manifesto is likely to inspire many philanthropists, policymakers, and advocates and serve as a reference point in America’s food policy debates for years to come.
But smarter national policy is just part of the puzzle. A top-down approach can only work if it’s advancing and amplifying what’s working from the bottom-up. At DC Central Kitchen, we embody many of the principles laid out by Bittman and company. Founded as the nation’s first community kitchen, we’ve been a leading advocate for recycling surplus food, paying fair wages, and building more robust local food systems. For years, we’ve translated their grand goals into the gritty grassroots work of liberating and strengthening our community through the power of food. And what we’re doing is working.
Of the nine ‘guarantees’ the authors would like US food policy to ensure, DC Central Kitchen has pioneered real, path-breaking progress toward six:
- All Americans have access to healthful food. DCCK prepares nearly 12,000 healthy meals each day—5,000 for DC’s homeless shelters, halfway houses, and direct service nonprofits, and more than 6,000 for low-income DC schoolchildren. Our school meals are scratch-cooked, locally sourced, and meet all the health standards that have sparked so much debate in the past few years. And most importantly, kids love them. DCCK’s unique approach to fighting food deserts even won a national Social Innovation Challenge award from Tavis Smiley and the University of Maryland this year.
- Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives. We’re proof that national policy pushes can work at the local level. As a USDA Farm to School grantee, we increased purchases of six local crops by more than 200% and saw student consumption of items like sweet potatoes and broccoli nearly double. But it look lots of on-the-ground inventiveness and grassroots community engagement to achieve these gains.
- Production and marketing of our food are done transparently. Want to see our kitchens in action? Come visit—or better yet, volunteer. Check out our Volunteer Bill of Rights, which ensures that our volunteers have the ability to understand what they’re contributing to and why. Interested in what we’re serving in schools? You can see our menus for breakfast, lunch, and supper here.
- The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs. DCCK is proud to be a job creator. We train at-risk women and men in the culinary arts and work to hire as many as we can in living wage positions. Today, 60 of our own graduates—people with histories of incarceration, addiction, homelessness, and chronic unemployment—now work for DCCK full-time, powering our pioneering programs. We provide a starting wage of $13.60 per hour with full health benefits and a 50% retirement match, because we believe work should pay in America.
- Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food. Our Healthy Corners program delivers nutritious snacks to 64 corner stores in low-income neighborhoods, marketing our fruits, vegetables, and prepared foods in stores, on buses, and at community events. We conduct taste tests in the school cafeterias where we serve lunch to refine recipes and get kids excited about healthy eating. And we even operate a mobile garden out of the bed of a pickup truck so we can bring seed-to-table lessons to inner city schools and youth programs.
- The food system’s carbon footprint is reduced. DCCK reduces shipping costs (and emissions) by buying locally; as the only USDA-recognized Food Hub in the District of Columbia, we’re aggregating and redistributing more than 200,000 pounds of local produce each year, investing in dozens of small and mid-size family farms. We also help local farmers sell more of what they grow, by purchasing aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables that otherwise wouldn’t have a buyer and would be plowed back under as seed. America wastes forty percent of its food supply each year, and this wasteful practice is a primary driver of that disturbing statistic.
We aren’t experts in climate change, animal husbandry, or antibiotics, so our programs don’t match up with all nine of the goals laid out in the Post—and we’re perfectly fine with that. But if that editorial got you thinking about the future of food in America, we hope our programs will get you excited about what’s already really happening in our country.
Our successes are real, and they’re changing lives in our community for the better. As the important conversation about smarter food policy moves forward, let’s make sure the dialogue is equally focused on smarter food practices, and use those practices to shape better policy.
Huan Song used to dream of being a professional chef. Today, she aspires to make fresh, nutritious food available in all of DC’s poorest neighborhoods. A love of cooking and her volunteer work with The Campus Kitchens Project linked these two dreams and led her to her current job as nutrition and community coordinator at DC Central Kitchen.
The Campus Kitchens Project feeds a love of cooking
Huan has been involved in nutrition and food issues since she was a teenager. She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2013 with degrees in environmental science and business administration, but her first love was culinary arts—specifically French cuisine—and she planned to go to culinary school after high school.
“I learned French and everything,” she laughs.
Her parents suggested she spend time working in a restaurant kitchen before enrolling in culinary school. This was sage advice, as it turned out: Huan hated the hectic kitchen environment, but her love of cooking remained intact.
“So I went to college. But there was no kitchen in my dorm and I needed a place to cook. My first week at college, I went to an information session on Campus Kitchens,” she says.
Over one-third of all food in the United States is never eaten—it gets thrown out, usually after it has been harvested, transported, processed, and sold. This waste drives up food prices, uses up resources, and adds to pollution. At the same time, millions of people in the U.S. suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Through The Campus Kitchens Project, student volunteers at 36 schools around the country address the dual problems of waste and hunger by recovering unused food from cafeterias and preparing and delivering nutritious meals for people in need. They also teach kids and families about nutrition, develop partnerships with farms and other institutions to make efficient use of food, and build connections in their schools’ communities.
Huan volunteered for The Campus Kitchens Project throughout her college years. She began gleaning for the program from a farmers’ market in Colonial Williamsburg that she frequented every Saturday, getting to know the farmers and bakers, who were happy to donate their unsold products to the program.
She also joined the Botany Club, worked for food service company Aramark doing market-sustainable procurement for the campus dining service, and interned at an international development organization to learn more about food and development issues.
In the process, she developed a passion not just for food, but for food justice, and that’s what brought her to DC Central Kitchen. As nutrition and community coordinator, Huan works on two DC Central Kitchen programs, Healthy Corners and the Truck Farm, that aim to bring fresh produce to food deserts (parts of the city where such food is scarce or financially out of reach) through an approach that involves and benefits stores, customers, and neighborhoods.
Access to real food in all DC neighborhoods
Cheap eats—highly processed snacks and convenience foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value—are abundant everywhere, and for many, they offer an inexpensive way to satisfy hunger. But for too many communities, processed snacks are all that is available, because fresh, nutritious food either is not sold where people live or is too expensive for them to buy regularly.
Huan believes that affordable, nutritious food should be accessible in every neighborhood in DC, not just the affluent ones. The lack of nutritious food in low-income areas contributes to poor health and can make it hard for kids to succeed at school (and adults at work), adding to the many challenges they already face. She and her colleagues at DC Central Kitchen are working with communities and businesses to increase the availability of nutritious and affordable food in DC’s food deserts.
“We want to provide people with access to nutritious food,” she says.
Healthy Corners finds convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods that are located in high-traffic areas without a nearby grocery store, places where fresh produce is not available. Healthy Corners works with shop owners who are interested in participating in the program to make fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious foods and snacks available in their stores.
Normally, the cost of procuring a small amount of perishable produce would be too high for a small corner store in a low-income area, but Healthy Corners buys it in bulk for all 36 participating stores, and store owners order only what they need from DC Central Kitchen.
The program works with the store owners to look at what they sell, who their customers are, and what their customers want to buy. It then helps the stores market the products through attractive branded displays and periodic cooking demonstrations on the stores’ high-traffic days.
Healthy Corners breaks down barriers
Even city residents who are lucky enough to have access to affordable vegetables and fruits may never have had a chance to see how they grow. To give them a glimpse, Truck Farm brings rows of herbs, lettuces, strawberries, and other garden vegetables to them—in the back of a pickup truck.
Since 2011, the travelling garden has been going to city events, Healthy Corners cooking demonstrations, and to schools, where kids can see how a tomato plant or a head of lettuce grows. Cooking demonstrations feature some of the vegetables that are growing in the truck, so people can see the link between a garden and a meal.
Kids play an important role in making Healthy Corners work. Through DCCK’s Healthy School Food program, kids learn about the benefits of fresh food and are given a voice in how to eat it: At cooking demonstrations in schools, students sample a given ingredient—say, kale—in three different recipes. They vote on the best-tasting recipe, and that dish is later featured in the school cafeteria. Huan says that, given the chance to pick their favorite dish, the kids are often more open-minded about new foods than their parents. To make it as easy as possible to include new dishes in their families’ diets, the program gives the students recipe cards and a list of nearby stores that participate in Healthy Corners where they can buy the ingredients.
The Healthy Corners model is succeeding because it aligns its goals with those of the store owners and customers. The stores want to attract customers, and one way to do that is to show they care by offering healthful food.
“The shop owners are happy to take ownership of the program and promote it, because customers like it,” says Huan.
It also increases their chances of winning DC government “Great Streets” capital improvement grants to improve storefront facades or upgrade equipment. More attractive stores and happier customers are good for business and the neighborhood.
DC Central Kitchen has received a second grant from DC’s Department of Small and Local Business Development to expand Healthy Corners to 30 more stores this summer. Huan hopes the program will “take down barriers”—she means both the plexiglass windows that are all too common in stores as well as the barriers to food security that low-income communities face.
She sees it as part of the larger food movement advocating healthy, sustainable food systems that benefit everyone.
“The food movement is a long process, like the women’s movement and civil rights movements. We’re at the beginning of that process,” she says. “I want Healthy Corners to be a household name; I want fresh fruit and vegetables to be as available as Coca Cola.”
Over 47 million low-income Americans depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase food. In the District of Columbia, one in eight families battles hunger and chronic food insecurity. The House Farm bill (HR 2642) proposed a nearly $39 billion decrease in spending for the SNAP program over the next 10 years and starting November 1st, recipients of SNAP saw a cut to their benefits.
With all these numbers thrown around, what are the actual implications on people’s daily lives? This is the question that I want to explore during my month-long SNAP challenge. The average SNAP recipient received around $135 per month prior to November 1st. After the cuts, they will now only receive $124 per month.
What is the value of $11? Two cappuccinos and a brownie? Or perhaps fresh fruits and vegetables for your kids?
During these four weeks in November, I will be doing all my food shopping at four of our Healthy Corners stores spread across Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8. The areas that these corner stores are located in are considered food desserts where residents lack access to affordable fresh foods. My first stop is Buxton Glory International Market on Georgia Avenue in Northeast. I planned out my menu for this week which is repetitive but nutritious and I will to use my crock pot to help me prepare two soups while I’m at work:
Buxton Glory carries quite a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables supplied by DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program and a local farmer. On my trip to the store, I spent $22.68 on tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, onion, spinach, cucumber, pears, bananas, and dried goods. There is still $8.32 left of my weekly food budget to spend on another trip to the store to round out my meals for the week. I hope I can make the money stretch!
Truck Farm is back! Last week DC Central Kitchen staff prepared the truck for its third year as a traveling, edible garden exhibit aimed at introducing the city’s youth to gardening and fresh, healthy foods. The bed of our Truck Farm is now growing carrots, snap peas, bush beans, lemon thyme, purple sage and about twenty other vegetables and herbs.
We’d like to thank our financial sponsors, the Aetna Foundation and the 15 Foundation, for making this work possible. More thanks to Old City Farm and Guild for donating seedlings for last week’s planting and Johnson Florist and Garden Center for donating supplies.
During this year’s growing season, we will be taking the Truck Farm to visit kids at the youth agencies, schools, and Healthy Corners stores that we serve, as well as city farmers markets. During each visit we’ll introduce kids to gardening and show them that it really is possible to grow your own food right here in the city. Each hands on session allows kids to touch, smell and even taste fresh veggies and herbs.
The Truck Farm is an important part of our wrap-around approach to ending childhood hunger. The program generates enthusiasm about eating fresh foods and increases participation in the healthy, scratch-cooked meals we deliver to ten DC schools in Ward 5, 7, and 8 by using lessons to generate enthusiasm about the fresh fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays.
Make room in that kitchen, mom and dad. Pre-Kindergarten students at Walker Jones Education Campus are learning that you’re never too young to help cook a healthy meal. On Tuesday mornings, three and four year-old students will participate in hands-on cooking lessons in the Walker Jones Food Lab.
Starting in January 2013, DC Central Kitchen’s chefs Ed Kwitowski and Christina Brown along with Katie Nash, R.D., will teach weekly lessons to WJA students simple cooking and baking techniques. The team will use kid-friendly recipes featuring fresh fruits and vegetables in weekly lessons. In early January, students in the first class rolled up their sleeves and learned to make “Smashed Bean Burritos,” mashing beans and salsa in Ziploc bags to fill and bake burritos.
The lessons also give WJA an opportunity to extend its Food Lab, a classroom dedicated to teaching the basics of cooking and nutrition, to the younger students. The Food Lab incorporates the school’s urban farm into its curriculum to educate children about their food sources. Ultimately, DC Central Kitchen and Walker Jones are aiming to encourage students to try new foods and empower them to cook healthy meals in their kitchens at home.
Think back to when you were in school. Did you ever get to try grilled BBQ beef bulgogi? How about curried chick peas, cauliflower gratin, red cabbage coleslaw, roasted beets, whole wheat bread stuffing, or Asia- style Brussels slaw? Before DC Central Kitchen produced meals for DC Public Schools, many of the kids had never tried whole grain pasta or raw kale.
We’ve learned that cultivating adventurous eaters, ones who are willing to give anything an honest try, takes time, repeated exposure, and a little one-on-one attention. And when healthy food is prepared the right way, most kids will give it a try! Kids get really excited about trying a specially prepared sample in an individual cup served to them by one of our chefs!
When the kids learn about a new food they like, they often talk about it at home. They ask their parents to provide the same food they’re getting at school. But if they live far from an affordable grocery store, it’s often hard to make those healthy meals at home. This is why we’ve partnered with 30 DC corner stores to bring many of the fresh ingredients and healthy snacks to their neighborhoods.
We’ve learned through our work at DC Public Schools that most kids want to eat healthy, but they aren’t being exposed to a variety of healthy food prepared in kid-friendly ways. This means going beyond simply providing vegetables as a side, to planning a variety of thoughtfully prepared dishes to give kids a wider palate. By cultivating adventurous eaters, we’re actually setting kids up to eat healthier for the rest of their lives.
You can join us to create brighter futures for DC families. Visit our Donate page and invest in our effort to push nutritional barriers and promote health in DC neighborhoods.