DC’s Food Future on Full Display at Congressional Black Caucus’s Legislative Conference

Chefs, entrepreneurs, and farmers talk sustainability and tradition over eclectic appetizers on panels at CBC.

Written by Max Johansen

The Congressional Black Caucus brought with it a wide range of panels and discussions, including the Big Chair discussion series. The series, put on by the Anacostia Business Improvement District in partnership with Busboys and Poets, is named for the iconic Big Chair monument in Anacostia. It focused on issues related to local business development and cultural preservation east of the river, and included two fascinating discussions on the connection between chefs, farmers, and eaters. The panels principally concluded that development of strong social connections between black chefs, farmers, and eaters was as important as advocating for healthy dietary behaviors in order to curb systemic malnutrition diseases.

“We need to dispel misconceptions about nutrition,” said Shawn Lightfoot, chef and entrepreneur, speaking about the need to address the disproportionately high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes east of the river. “People presented with a holistic view of food production will be able to make better economic, dietary, and social choices,” in their interactions with food, added Joelle Robinson, co-founder of the Green Scheme.

One of the major themes of the panels was an emphasis on growth of minority owned businesses in the food sector and collaboration by successful entrepreneurs with start-up candidates through incubators, internships, and social engagements. In between panels, chefs from Delish Dish catering and Dialect catering–both graduates of a business accelerator program target at black chefs–served warm appetizers with southwestern influence: corn cake with pickled cabbage slaw, and spicy, cheesy nachos.

The CBC’s annual legislative conference also featured other food vendors throughout the exhibit hall, many of whom have operated out of Wards 7 and 8 for years. Echoing the panels sentiments about cooking healthy, all vendors proudly offered vegetarian or vegan options. A hopeful indication of changing attitudes towards sustainability and dietary preferences.

When asked about the challenges to developing the multi-layered relationships in the food space, and about recruiting young people to the production side, “funding is a major issue,” said Lightfoot. “It takes a lot of self funding, which is obviously riskier. The state and federal dollars do not flow as readily to communities of color,” as they do to white entrepreneurs. Other panelists pointed out that it was incumbent on leaders in this area to prioritize “people over profits” and “look out for one’s own.” Much of the area in Wards 7 and 8 afflicted by food apartheid, and it is more important to build an equitable food system than it is to build a massively profitable one. “The equitable food model has to include land ownership,” said Thomas Weed of the University of the District of Columbia’s Urban Farming program, CAUSES. It must also include, “fair tax incentives–why are farmers in Iowa getting subsidized while farmers in DC are not?” and address the skill and experience gap that exists in DC’s most food insecure areas.

“You have to realize that you have land at your disposal to practice growing food,” added Furard Tate, a cofounder of DC Black Restaurant Week, speaking of DC’s many community gardens and urban farmshares. “Think about it as a way to connect to your neighbors as well.” John Gloster, of Howard University, pointed out that the historic influence of black farmers and chefs on the development of American cuisine–including Hercules, the personal chef of George Washington, among others–is ubiquitous, yet often does not receive its due credit. He urged a proliferation of farmers’ markets to further connect growers and eaters, and to provide space to share a wealth of culinary history.

The panels’ projections were positive for the next decade: more communally owned land for agriculture both within and around the city; a vibrant, renown black culinary scene; increased investment in training for young people; and highly paid job opportunities, especially in food technology. With the recent announcement by the Rockefeller Foundation of a significant grant to help develop the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Good Hope Road SE–supposedly bringing with it several thousand tech jobs–those lofty goals may yet be attainable.

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