A grantee of Voices for Healthy Kids, DC Greens uses the levers of food education, access, and policy to advance food justice in the nation’s capital. Through their Community Advocates Program, residents who have actually experienced food insecurity in their everyday lives are empowered to become informed, critical, and persuasive advocates.
The success of the program, as well as that of DC Greens’ overall equity work, has depended on a strong foundation of trust and relationships built with partner organizations and the communities in which they operate.
“Change moves at the pace of trust,” said Lillie Rosen, DC Greens’ deputy director. “We can’t do any of the work that we do successfully if we haven’t taken the time to build trust with partners, with organizations, with the communities most impacted and marginalized from these issues.”
Community Advocates Program: Empowered to Fight Food Insecurity
Thanks to an initial incubator grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, DC Greens began by implementing a story-gathering project focused on DC residents experiencing food equity injustices who were committed to ongoing justice work. Many participants experienced a lack of financial resources to acquire healthy food, lived in an area where access to healthy food was unreliable, or were recipients of SNAP, TANF, WIC, or Senior Grocery Plus boxes. DC Greens’ goal was to connect the dots between different but related struggles people face within food systems and the gaps within DC Green’s overall strategy.
“Initially we thought we would be using some of those stories in our advocacy work. But what we realized was that it made more sense for us to be investing in the people with the stories. Instead of just conditioning them to exclusively tell their stories, we wanted them to direct their own work and build their own critical analysis about the efforts,” said Asha Carter, community engagement specialist.
As the story-gathering project continued, DC Greens realized that most of the spaces where decisions were made about people’s lives were missing the experience of those on the receiving end, so they set out to address that need.
Dominque Hazzard, community engagement specialist, recounted how the project helped her understand “that people don’t live single-issue lives. It helped me to be able to paint the picture when we’re doing advocacy and designing our programs.”
Funded by a second grant from Voices for Heathy Kids, DC Greens expanded the Community Advocate Program. Today, in its second year, it’s comprised of six to eight supporters who participate in the program over a six-month period and who are compensated at $20/hour, which DC Greens reports is critical to the program’s success. It signifies that the time and effort invested by advocates is respected and important, and it affords advocates the opportunity to spend the appropriate level of time to build depth in their relationships and work.
Advocates learn how to navigate the policy environment in DC, including community organizing, advocacy, food justice, the industrialized food system, power mapping, and relationship building. With a combination of funds from Voices for Healthy Kids and others, advocates have the opportunity to attend and present at select city hearings, neighborhood meetings, and events where they work with leading city agencies and private businesses to inform new policies intended to create a more just food system. In return for their time and financial investment, advocates help DC Greens understand pressing local concerns, gaps in services, unintended policy outcomes, and emerging issues that could lead to changes in their work.
This work has already garnered success. Four advocates from the initial year have continued to engage with the program. And in 2016, DC Greens’ advocacy and policy work secured $1.2 million in municipal funding for food access and helped to bring the perspectives of impacted residents to DC’s first-ever Food Policy Council.
Health Care Providers Use Fruit and Vegetable Prescriptions For Chronic Illness
DC Greens also partners with a variety of organizations to host two food equity programs in the DC Area—Produce Plus and Produce Rx. Produce Plus is a nutrition incentive program that, in giving DC residents $10 to spend at the farmer’s market, connects them to healthy food. With a focus on prevention, Produce RX allows health care providers with food insecure patients or those experiencing diet-related chronic illness to issue monthly prescriptions for fruits and vegetables that can be redeemed at farmer’s markets.
Voices for Healthy Kids also supported DC Greens in developing a strategic plan, obtaining technical assistance, and attending trainings. As a result, DC Greens was able to consider their bigger strategic plans, think about where they wanted to be within three years, and outline how they were going to achieve that vision.
“There was an initial nebulous goal with the advocacy program,” said Hazzard. “But we never talked about what, specifically, it looked like. Having the ideas down on paper was a game changer for us.”
Attending the Voices for Healthy Kids all grantee meeting was also pivotal. After listening to how different organizations were working for change, DC Greens was inspired to organize a Grocery Walk “to give the [City Council] the opportunity to directly experience what’s happening about healthy food financing and food access.” Held in October 2017 and in partnership with a dozen other organizations, hundreds of people, including six city council members, walked two miles from a food insecure neighborhood to the nearest grocery store to elevate the issue of food injustice in the nation’s capital.
Having the guidance and support from an external organization that was valid in the field was reassuring to DC Greens— especially when they were pioneering new programs.
“We have felt that support deeply,” said Hazzard. “It’s really facilitated us to walk in this new direction.”
Building Trust is a Precursor to Success
To establish themselves as an organization capable of impacting food policy and building the coalition necessary to continually raise the profile of marginalized community members, establishing trust was critical. This trust was built through years of authentic listening and proactive problem-solving across sectors. It was built by investing time and resources in residents too frequently considered “recipients” of programs instead of partners, co-collaborators, and employees.
“There isn’t always an organization that’s able and willing to do the actual work of collaboration,” said Rosen. “And that’s the work that DC Greens does. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to be successful. We work very hard to develop trusting relationships across the food system and to then make sure that we’re doing the actual work that is being asked of us in those spaces and contributing our knowledge and expertise. But we also make sure that all of the right people are participating in the conversation to provide their knowledge and expertise.”
With momentum building from DC Greens’ work, the range of voices involved in policy discussions has broadened. Instead of depending solely on the knowledge base of professional advocates, those with a lived experience of food insecurity are compensated for their wisdom, and their perspectives are valued. Leveraging their ability to build trust and relationships, DC Greens is building in-roads to leadership and decision-making for a new set of advocates who have deeper local ownership of the food system.
Community Advocate Beatrice Evans said, “I always wanted to be a part of these [decision-making] conversations, but every time I showed up, I never could understand what everyone was talking about. Now I feel educated on the issues. I feel like I can be a voice for my community.”