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#DCFood4Thought discussion: how food impacts community

"Food in our Neighborhoods" aimed to spark conversations about food, healthy living, and community. Here, Celeste James, Kaiser Permanente, introduces the panelists

“Waiting three years for a sustainable food solution is not satisfactory," says OP's Laine Cidlowski

“If you’ve ever had a really bad day, just walking to the kitchen can be overwhelming,” says JuJu Harris

Moderator Mary Beth Albright

Food can be medicine, says Dr. Ted Eytan, Kaiser Permanente

Improving access to healthful, local foods is not only making the District a better place to live but also building community in pockets throughout the city, according to a group of experts from a cross-section of disciplines who shared their findings during a panel discussion last week.

“There’s a lot of action and energy around our food systems,” says Laine Cidlowski, an urban sustainability planner for the D.C. Office of Planning. “Most of it is being driven by the community; they’re demanding a better situation in the city.”

The discussion at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health, hosted by Kaiser and ElevationDC, touched on some of the persistent problems with D.C.’s food system — such as a lack of physical and financial access to fruits and vegetables for some of the city’s poorest — but focused on how solutions to these problems are knitting communities together around places like gardens and grocery stores.

Cidlowski said that, even for young urbanites who want to grow some of their own food in the city, access to District-owned community garden plots is limited and can land hopefuls on a waiting list for up to three years.

“Waiting three years for a sustainable food solution is not satisfactory. I waited two years for my [garden] plot, and that’s not uncommon,” she says.

Even for those who’d just like to see healthier options at their local grocery store, progress can be slow. The District has 44 full-service grocery stores, but several corners of the city still offer little access to a full range of foods.

The District considers these areas of the city “food deserts” but uses a definition that’s stricter than the USDA’s designation, Cidlowski says. Communities of high poverty that are more than a 10-minute walk or one bus transfer away from a full-service grocery store are considered food deserts in D.C.

Programs like Healthy Corners, which encourages corner stores to carry produce and other healthier options, help fill in the gaps where food access is lacking, as do mobile markets.

Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture drives its mobile market bus filled with produce into areas of the city that have the least access to fresh foods. The markets accept and are often able to double SNAP benefits (previously known as food stamps) in exchange for produce.

JuJu Harris, Arcadia’s culinary educator and SNAP outreach coordinator, says a 10-minute walk can sometimes be too much for people living in poverty, especially when they have easier access to unhealthful options.

“If you’ve ever had a really bad day, just walking to the kitchen can be overwhelming,” she says.

Harris hosts cooking demonstrations at the markets to help engage customers about what to do with the produce once they get home. She disarms and connects with them over the fact that she was once “a WIC mom,” referring to the Women, Infants and Children program that subsidizes food for expectant mothers or mothers of young children.

Even then, Harris says, “It was important for me to maintain the health of my family and maintain my own health.”

Harris is now able to give women in similar circumstances a cookbook she helped produce last year that combines WIC staple foods with produce sold at the market to create healthful meals. Her signature kale salad appears on the cover of The Arcadia Market Seasonal Cookbook, which is free to those receiving such assistance at the market.

“You can tell people, ‘Hey, go eat healthy.’ But if they don’t know how to cook it, they’ll be hesitant,” Harris says.

Ted Eytan, MD, a doctor at Kaiser and director for the Permanente Federation, said that physicians are often one of the first people patients look to for advice about what they eat — but many doctors are hesitant to give it.

He asked audience members to raise their hands if they thought their doctor could be more engaged about the food they eat, and several hands shot up.

Eytan pointed out that doctors have an incredible sphere of influence. Today, more healthcare providers like Kaiser are using that to engage patients in preventative care — and food is one of the biggest frontiers for that effort.

“People pay here to be healthy, not for sick care,” Eytan says of Kaiser’s system, “What we’ve learned is that… people don’t want to have you intervene with the way they lead their lives. Most patients actually don’t want to take medicine.”

As a physician, Eytan says he tries to think about “what happens when the patient isn’t here and how can we make them healthy before we see them?”

That’s why he encourages patients to communicate with him between appointments through the use of technology. New applications for smartphones allow patients to enter information — like what they ate for breakfast — into their electronic medical records, which could better inform doctors about their overall lifestyles.

Harris says she’s been encouraged to see more doctors, especially those who work with low-income individuals, using innovative programs that deploy “food as medicine.”

One of those programs allows doctors to prescribe vegetables to patients and to provide them with additional funds to purchase them, instead of spending money on medications to treat the symptoms. 

Cidlowski added that, across the city, perceptions are changing about healthy food. But some stereotypes persist.

Mary Beth Albright, a food writer and moderator of the panel, asked the panelists how they’re addressing the perception that healthful food is “just for the elite,” one that remains out of reach or undesired by other facets of the population.

Cidlowski says that the city continues to launch programs and pass laws, like the Healthy Schools Act, that improve access to good food at all income levels, but community members are fueling the most encouraging changes.

“I feel like, from a planning perspective, you really know that something has caught on as a social movement when the developers are saying, ‘I think this is a priority, and I can make money off of it as well,’” says Cidlowski, providing examples of new mixed-use developments in the city that are incorporating community rooftop gardens or grocery stores.

“We all touch different pieces of it,” she says, “but we’re seeing people understand these natural connections better than ever.”
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