Driving up to volunteer at one of our free monthly outdoor farmer’s markets recently, I quickly saw that this market was very much in the shadow of the Capitol. A couple of blocks from NPR, adjacent to shiny new condos/apartment buildings, but also adjacent to a street with boarded up houses. You could hear the sounds of construction a few blocks away. What an apt reflection of DC today.
It was an amazing sight to see people of all cultures, standing in line as early as 5 am, with people chaining their shopping carts to the railing on the side of the street. The lines wrapped around two, maybe even three city blocks before the market opened.
As I walked through the line I saw a true reflection of this global city: Chinese women doing their morning stretches; Chinese men sitting down playing a card game; a woman of Middle Eastern descent with a head scarf tending to her baby; an African American woman in her wheel chair waiting with her bag perched on her lap; and members of a church on the street handing out some water and allowing those in line to use their restroom.
Back at the market, volunteers were putting up tents, standing up tables, starting to take onions from a 50 pound bag and dividing them into smaller containers. Our CAFB driver James was moving bottles of almond milk from the truck on a fork lift, registration forms were being lined up, and menu cards were being stacked. There was a steady stream of work and chit chat among volunteers as we worked and swayed our hips a bit to the Motown music that was blaring from our boom box on the sidewalk.
Gabbi, the market leader from the food bank, brought all the volunteers together to explain how things would work and how much we would be allocating per family: two boxes of cereal; one carton of milk; three to four heads of cabbage; one carton of kale; a bag each of onions and potatoes. We all went to our stations, and soon we were open for business.
The snaking line of people began to move, and soon the bags and carts of our international patrons were being filled with food. I was moved by the number of people who said, “thank you – this really helps”, or who happily engaged in conversation about what recipe they planned to use a particular vegetable in. Some shared what the extra produce was helping them to achieve with their health.
It also made me wonder, though – even as I observed how critical this market is for so many – how could we be doing more to make this snaking line shorter? What would it take to both meet our visitors’ need for food today, and help them move towards a future where our services don’t have to be a part of their monthly planning? And, importantly, could food play a role in both of these scenarios?
If this situation, in the shadow of the Capitol, is to be addressed once and for all, it’s going to take all of us, along with new, creative ideas that involve time, technology, training, trust, and resources.
Time, to develop new ideas and partnerships, and to build the economic bridges that enable people to move from reliance on food that is free, to food that is subsidized, to participating as traditional consumers in the marketplace.
Technology, both existing and new, to continue improving our understanding of where and what kind of resources are needed to best serve our communities.
Training, done in partnership with others, to build skills that can drive economic advancement for the people we serve and create lasting food security.
Trust, between and among the food bank, those we serve, our nonprofit partners, and the many individuals and sectors engaged in the work of ending hunger as we try new approaches to solving old problems.
And resources, to invest in this critical work and drive outcomes – children who can better focus in school; a stronger, healthier adult workforce; seniors aging with dignity, among many others – that benefit every member of our region and our broader society.
Shortening the line at the market, even as we work to ensure that those who are in it today get enough of the best food possible, will not be easy. And it will not be quick. But it is achievable, and it is the work that we are committed to because it is the work that the future demands. We are not alone on this journey, and welcome all who will join us as we continue onward.