Success Stories

DC Greens: Overcoming Food Insecurity in the Nation’s Capital

Healthy Food Access
District of Columbia

“One of the biggest ways that we do our equity work is by shifting who’s at the table, who’s in the room, and trying to shift the relations of power.”  – DC Greens

The Mission

Though many organizations work tirelessly to create health equity in their cities, they also struggle to create sustainable impact beyond the next event or campaign. Organizations have found that to fully address the inequalities in food systems, conversations about food policy need to occur at all levels of government. One of the core tenants for DC Greens, a grantee of Voices for Healthy Kids, is addressing food policy head on by shifting the power to the people experiencing challenges. Their mission is to use the levers of food education, access, and policy to advance food justice in the nation’s capital.

A critical piece of their success is the creation of the Community Advocates Program, which was funded by a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids. The program strategically resources residents who have lived experiences of food insecurity and cultivates them into informed, critical, and persuasive community advocates. The success of the program, as well as the success of DC Greens’ overall equity work, is a direct result of the trust and relationships built with its partner organizations and the communities in which they operate.

“Change moves at the pace of trust,” quotes Lillie Rosen, the Deputy Director of DC Greens. “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. That’s the most necessary work that we do as our first step and our last step.”

Creation of Community Advocates Program

DC Greens first received an incubator grant from Voices for Healthy Kids that was the impetus behind the Community Advocates Program. The initial grant funded a story gathering project focused on individuals experiencing food equity injustices. Through the stories gathered, DC Greens began to connect the dots between the different but related struggles people face within food systems and the gaps within DC Green’s overall strategy.

As Dominque Hazzard, Community Engagement Specialist recounts, because of the story gathering project they were “able to understand that people don’t live through single-issue lives. It helped me to be able to paint the picture when we’re doing the advocacy and designing our programs and actions.”

DC Greens also came to another realization about their equity work. “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 want them to direct their own work and build their own critical analysis about the efforts,” says Asha Carter, Community Engagement Specialist. DC Greens realized that most of the spaces where decisions were made about people’s lives were missing the people experiencing the consequences of those decisions, so they set out to address the need.

Funded by a second grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, DC Greens expanded the Community Advocate Program. It now is comprised of six to eight supporters who participate in the program over a six-month period.  Participants must have a lived experience of food insecurity in DC and a commitment to ongoing justice work. A lived experience may mean they have experienced a lack of financial resources to acquire healthy food, live in an area where access to healthy food is unreliable, or have experience as a recipient of SNAP, TANF, WIC, or Senior Grocery Plus boxes. Advocates 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.

During the program, which is partially funded by Voices for Healthy Kids, advocates learn to develop critical analysis about the topic at hand and to represent both themselves and their experiences so they can influence people’s mindsets on food equity. Advocates learn how to navigate the policy environment in DC, such as how to understand the legislative calendar, the city budget, and effective advocacy strategies. Other topics covered include community organizing, advocacy, food justice, the industrialized food system, power mapping, and relationship building.  Utilizing a combination of funds from Voices for Healthy Kids and others, the equity work then occurs as advocates attend and present at select city hearings, community 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 the time and financial investment, advocates help DC Greens understand pressing community concerns, gaps in services, unintended policy outcomes, and emerging issues that could lead to changes in DC Greens’ work.

In its second year, the program has already seen success. Not only have four advocates from the initial year have continued to be engaged with us through this program, 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.

In addition to DC Greens’ campaign work, they partner with a variety of organizations to host two food equity programs in the DC Area – Produce Plus and Produce Rx. The Produce Plus program is a farmers’ market nutrition incentive program designed to connect DC residents with healthy food by providing $10 to spend at the farmer’s market. Produce Rx is a program which advances health equity by intervening at high levels of the city’s chronic health disparities. With a focus on prevention, it allows health care providers with food insecure patients or those experiencing diet-related chronic illness to issue monthly prescriptions for fruits and vegetables which can be redeemed at farmers’ markets.

Building an Advocacy Program

  • Be strategic: Ensure that the advocates have a stake in the issues they’re advocating for in their communities.
  • Be a resource: Provide the strategic and tactical resources necessary to help advocates achieve success.
  • Be mindful: Acknowledge that the time spent by advocates is valuable to them too; compensate them for their time and abilities.
  • Be flexible: Allow advocates the platform to express their opinions and be open; your work and views may be changed as a result.

Support from Voices for Healthy Kids

The support extended to DC Greens from Voices for Healthy Kids was more than just financial. In consultation with Voices for Healthy Kids, DC Greens developed a strategic plan, received technical assistance, and attended trainings. As a result of these supports, DC Greens was able to step back and have an in-depth discussion about strategy, to think about where they wanted the organization to be within three years, and to outline how they were going to achieve that vision. “There was a [initial] nebulous goal [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 for DC Greens. After listening to how different organizations were working for change, DC Greens was inspired to organize a Grocery Walk “to give them [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, DC Greens hosted the Grocery Walk where hundreds of people, including six city council members, walked two miles from a food insecure community 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,” says Hazzard. “It’s really facilitated us to walk in this new direction.”

Maximizing Support from Voices for Healthy Kids

  • Build on past successes: Ensure that key learnings from each grant and campaign is incorporated into the future vision and growth of the work
  • Take time to reflect and write it down: It is an important to go through the process of reflecting on the long-term goals and vision of the organization and articulating an equity centric strategy in words
  • Listen for success stories: Leverage the relationship with other grantees and determine how their success can help propel your organization’s goals

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,” says Lillie Rosen, Deputy Director of DC Greens. “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 are then 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 community ownership of the food system. Community Advocate Beatrice Evans says, “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.”

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*Voices for Healthy Kids is a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). No RWJF funds were used to support lobbying activities.