Why the Solution for Food Justice in the Black Community Means Reacquainting Itself with Its Village

Activists in Washington D.C.’s Ward 7 are raising the bar, and awareness, on the city’s ongoing food insecurity issue.

By Chiara Atoyebi

Family photo courtesy of the author

When I was a small child living in Detroit, my mother would drop me off at my grandmother’s house before heading out to her night shift at Henry Ford Hospital. At the time, my grandmother still worked with her hands. She was skilled at decorating, growing vegetables, and cooking up savory meals overflowing with flavor and aromatic spices.

Grandma would have a nightly ritual of frying fish, served on a slice of white bread with a dash of Louisiana hot sauce to all the family. Stevie Wonder or Luther Vandross would blare from the radio speakers as she passed out the silverware. She would smile, content with the look on our happy faces, as she backed her way into the kitchen through wooden beads humming to herself. 

I remember gathering around the kitchen table with my aunts and cousins, smiling and eating. My grandmother would give the table a once over before sending someone next door to “borrow” some sugar. 

“Tell Peaches’ momma I’ll pay her back.”

She never did, but it was never a problem with the neighbors. There was always sugar and whatever else was needed. When somebody’s food went low, someone in the neighborhood always stepped in. We were all family. The community was our village. It made me feel safe and secure when I was away from my mother. 

Yet when the food really ran out, it was gone. All the way gone. During that time the smiles, and the laughter, left with it. Only to be replaced with frustration and agitation. 

External factors such as emotional stress, low living wages, poor living conditions, and a lack of access to quality and nutritious food present a persistent barrier to wellness. 

According to a 2008 NIH study, emotional stress is a significant factor that contributes to the six leading illnesses that can cause death. Heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide make up most medical complaints. 

Yet when the food really ran out, it was gone. All the way gone. During that time the smiles, and the laughter, left with it. Only to be replaced with frustration and agitation. 

These issues often go unmitigated, leaving African Americans more than any other group, in various stages of declining health. As a country, we are reckoning with long-standing systemic practices rooted in our foundation that are inherently racist. One of the greatest disparities we face in our nation is within our food system.  

Food apartheid, Food Swamps, and Food Deserts are implications of those practices

In February of 2021, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released a food policy report charting the number of food insecure populations in the District of Columbia before and after the pandemic’s height. Food insecurity is up by 16% from 10.6% pre-COVID. The report outlined funds that will aid in the stabilization of food workers, and support food security, in the coming year.

Hopefully, this much-needed initiative will find a way into the District’s ward 8, which currently has one grocery store per 85,160 residents, vs. DC’s Ward 3, which boasts an egregious 1 grocery store for every 9, 336 residents. Ward 3 is home to the wealthiest and the whitest residents of the district, while Ward 7 is comprised mainly of Black and Brown families.

Mary Blackford is the founder of Market7, a premier marketplace of Black-Owned businesses, and a longtime Ward 7 resident. While visiting Ghana, Blackford witnessed autonomy within its communities and marketplaces. During her visit, she became deeply inspired by those spaces and set out to recreate what she saw upon returning stateside. 

“We have a serious food apartheid issue,” says Blackford in an interview with Washingtonian Magazine. 

“Food desert kind of sounds like it’s a natural occurrence. Food apartheid speaks to this really intentional act of discriminatory practices and even laws against communities of color, specifically Black communities.”

Regaining autonomy through community-based practices is deeply rooted in African American and African Diasporic traditions. Not only is the installation of Black-owned businesses in the community an integral part of restoring the village, but a return to the soil is as well. 

The District’s nonprofit “Dreaming Out Loud” is the organization behind The Farm at Kelly Miller in ward 7. According to their website, “Dreaming Out Loud” aims to use the food system as a powerful tool of resistance, resilience, and advocacy for structural change.  

In their 2021 Food Policy report, DC Food Policy outlined three strategies toward a path for creating a more secure food system. A large part of this initiative is to invest in community markets like Market 7. They promote grants for farmers of color and educate people on the link between nutrition and wellness.

Back in Detroit, my family worked with the land. Even though it was small, and in our backyard, it was ours. The women of my family were peaceful as they pulled tomatoes off the vine in the backyard. They cut cucumbers and snapped peas too. Whatever was leftover they would often share. Admittedly, I took those small aspects of community for granted, thinking they would always be there. Yet over time, they faded away.  

The All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m still hopeful, and I always have been. I still believe in the village mentality and extended family communing together through food. When we were like this, we had fewer hungry people. In the mid-eighties, I’d already left my family behind in Detroit. My mother joined the military, and we were off to Kansas, then Berlin, and–we never looked back. By that time, I was watching the rise of hip-hop from overseas and the fall of the Berlin Wall on our home front. 

Never would I forget the times around the table with my family. The laughter as well as the heartache. Nor did I forget the losses that occurred when we stopped working with our hands, when we lost the men of our village, and the dignity in our food choices. 

Thankfully today’s activists are focused–they will not be moved in the pursuit of equality. Through raised awareness and community effort, the residents of Ward 7 are putting down roots and establishing traditions. A much-needed guiding light on the road to food justice.

For a comprehensive look at food insecurity in the Washington, D.C. are visit: www.anacostia.si.edu and their “Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington”–to learn more.

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