Cynthia Hall

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The change-makers who fill the pages of this year’s Food Issue shape our local food system and make D.C. an exciting place to eat, even as the District is gripped by a global pandemic.

Among them are a pastry chef whose crumb of an idea turned into a global bake sale that raised close to $2 million for organizations combating systemic racism, a Mutual Aid Movement worker who brings groceries to home-bound residents at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and an entrepreneur out to prove a food hall filled with Black-owned businesses can bring tourism to River Terrace. They all envision a D.C. where residents have access to fresh, healthy food and economic opportunities no matter their address, and where multiculturalism and diversity are deeply valued and celebrated. May their stories light a fire under our collective butts to challenge what’s possible, in this region and throughout the world.  —Laura Hayes

Mary Blackford, Founder, Market 7

Mary Blackford is in the process of filling 7,000 square feet of a building with Black-owned food and retail businesses. To aid in the selection, she’s held pop-ups throughout D.C. featuring 60 different vendors over the past three years. Her enterprise, Market 7, will open inside Benning Market, in Ward 7’s River Terrace neighborhood, in 2021. She beat out 600 entrants this month to win a $150,000 grant in the Pine-Sol and ESSENCE Build Your Legacy Contest that will be put toward the project.

The food hall won’t just be a game changer for those who sell food and drink. Blackford’s vision is for Market 7 to be a boon for the ward where she grew up. She’s tired of the markers of success multinational corporations use as excuses for not opening stores in the neighborhood. “This idea of us being too poor to get a grocery store is not true,” she says. “Other concepts can work. I want to infuse some food tourism on this side of the river, where you can experience our culture through food, family, and community events.” 

Many neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are labeled as food deserts, and the dearth of healthy food options and grocers has enduring health consequences. Blackford uses another term to describe the situation. “Desert seems like a natural occurrence,” she says. “Food apartheid hones in on the fact that there are all types of economic barriers working against Black communities.” 

While participating in Sibley Memorial Hospital’s Ward Infinity program, which empowers residents from Wards 7 and 8 to strengthen health and wellness efforts east of the river, Blackford conducted analyses and found 67 percent of people surveyed in Ward 7 go to Ward 6 to get some or all of their food items, and 24 percent head to Maryland. “People can’t do all their shopping here and they don’t,” Blackford says. “My goal is to make sure we have what we need to live healthy and sustainable lives.” 

Blackford is an entrepreneur at heart. She attended the Business and Finance Academy at H.D. Woodson Senior High School before majoring in entrepreneurial studies at Babson College. While at Babson, Blackford traveled to Ghana with 45 fellow students and taught 11th graders entrepreneurship. 

In Ghana, she was most impressed by the community marketplaces where you can buy everything from food to beauty supplies. “A community that wasn’t rich at all had autonomy in the economy through these central marketplaces,” she recalls.

Market 7 has some vendors lined up, but Blackford says she’s going to open leasing soon. “At the end of the day, I’m a landlord,” she says. “But because of disenfranchisement that still plagues our community today, I can’t just be a landlord.” Market 7 will provide its Black-owned businesses with mentorship, training, and technical assistance.

Eventually, Blackford wants to open similar food halls in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, cities where she says Black communities have been shut out of opportunities. But first, she’ll take on the District. —Laura Hayes

Danielle Vogel, Founder, Glen’s Garden Market

Danielle Vogel comes from a long line of grocers, but the founder of Glen’s Garden Market in Dupont Circle didn’t immediately follow in her family’s footsteps. She first spent a decade on Capitol Hill advising Democrats and Republicans on environmental issues, culminating with an attempt to pass sweeping climate change legislation that died in the Senate in 2010. 

Feeling both defeated and determined, Vogel opened the greenest grocery store she could on Earth Day 2013. “I needed a more creative way to make incremental climate change progress while large-scale legislative change seemed impossible,” she says. “Every decision is made with the environment in mind.” 

Glen’s is solar-powered, stocks its shelves with products from the Chesapeake Bay watershed region to reduce its carbon footprint, offers free composting, and operates with zero food waste. “Our chefs have to play a game of Glen’s Chopped challenge,” Vogel jokes. “If there’s a floppy bunch of kale coming off of the produce shelf, they’ll make it into kale pesto.” 

The store wasn’t outspoken about its sustainability efforts until Donald Trump was elected. “I like to do the right thing, but I don’t like to wear the T-shirt about it,” Vogel says. “It became critical to be overt about our efforts so people understood in this frustrating time that they have a chance to make incremental progress through their buying decisions.” 

Vogel is eager to give others a shot. She’s provided 90 entrepreneurs with their first chance to sell products on retail shelves. Fifty-five of those businesses are women-owned and 20 were founded by people of color. In 2018, Glen’s took nurturing local startups to the next level by launching the AccelerateHERdc competition to incubate women-led food businesses in the region. The winning entrepreneur received $10,000 to invest in their company, as well as mentorship. AccelerateHERdc has since evolved into a grant program for food entrepreneurs of color. The store will award $1,500 grants quarterly.

Like most grocery stores, Glen’s was tested during the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike most grocery store operators, Vogel put staff and customers before her bottom line. First, she reduced capacity beyond the level required by the city and introduced curbside pickup and nearby delivery. Then, she split the employees into groups that rotate and don’t overlap. One set works weekdays, another weekends, and a third is paid to stay home and rest. They’re paid as if they’re working full-time, and hourly workers got a raise.

That’s not to say Vogel didn’t lay anyone off. To help those workers, she created an emergency fund, to which she personally contributed $7,000. She also paid their health insurance premiums through June and helped offset their rents. “People needed more rest because of amplified anxiety at work,” Vogel says. “I’ve never seen a group of people pull together the way they did to get the community through COVID-19.” —Laura Hayes

Cynthia Hall, Volunteer, Mutual Aid Movement DC

Cynthia Hall’s leap into mutual aid work was predestined. She grew up in the Columbia Heights Village Apartments, an affordable housing complex populated with many single mothers, like her own, who looked out for one another. Hall and her family were among the first tenants to live in the building when it was built 44 years ago. She left the complex when she was grown only to return as the director of operations for the Columbia Heights Village Tenant Association.

When the pandemic hit, Hall found herself delivering food and toilet paper at 1 a.m. to seniors and other individuals at high-risk of contracting COVID-19. The work started at Columbia Heights Village, and then expanded citywide. As a lead organizer for the Mutual Aid Movement DC, Hall answers calls around the clock, goes shopping—sometimes for 100 people at a time—and delivers purchases free of charge. It’s volunteer work she does with dozens of other Washingtonians. 

The grassroots network of volunteers connects with individuals in need online or by phone. Hall says she couldn’t have done it without her fellow Mutual Aid leaders, including Robert Schlehuber, Paul W. Jones, Jasmine Maclin, Veronica Perez, Calvin Jackson, Juliet Ivanov, and Maya Gold.

“I would go to a germy grocery store every single morning of my life for the first 50 days after the government closed just to keep the seniors and people that should not be out from going into grocery stores and crowded places,” Hall says. “My heart and my passion was to help.” 

Hall always knew food insecurity existed in her city, but the pandemic refocused her energy on the inequalities that persist. Different circumstances left her neighbors without access to basic necessities. Consider the worker who was laid off but didn’t qualify for government assistance due to their immigration status or the single parent who works a job that doesn’t pay enough to provide for three kids. Hall tries to feed them all. 

The food she doles out is mostly healthy, thanks to partnerships with World Central Kitchen, Dreaming Out Loud, Sunnyside Restaurant Group, and FRESHFARM Markets. “I wanted to partner with organizations that would help me distribute food that was good for the body, because people were sitting at home,” Hall says. In her experience, food assistance programs often rely on canned or shelf-stable foods that can be high in sodium and preservatives.

Hall is still fielding calls, including from a senior who hasn’t left their home in 10 weeks. Motivated by her mother, who contracted COVID-19, Hall vows to continue answering the phone. “It made me want to help others even more because I saw firsthand what that virus could do to a family,” she says. —Amanda Michelle Gomez

Nina Oduro, Maame Boakye, and Nana Ama Afari-Dwamena, Founders, Dine Diaspora

The Black Lives Matter movement has been gaining critical attention around the world, but for the founders of Dine Diaspora, the message is ingrained in their work. “We amplify Black voices,” says Nina Oduro. “We tell the stories of Black entrepreneurs and creatives in the food industry. We want that to grow, and not just because we’re in this movement.” 

Oduro and her fellow co-founders launched Dine Diaspora in 2014 as a way to strengthen ties within the African food community. They became known for events like a speaker series, private dinners, and their annual Chop Bar food festival. For the past three years, Dine Diaspora has also identified and celebrated Black women in food during Women’s History Month.

Dine Diaspora has always taken an inclusive view as to what qualifies as a food business. “Mom-and-pops have been a really big staple in D.C. for many Black food entrepreneurs, but many others may never even get to have a restaurant,” Oduro says. “These people are also critical to how people experience African diaspora food. When you get away from just looking at people that have been able to establish bases, you really get into the core.” 

“What we’ve always done is [bring] people together through food and the experience of eating food together,” says Maame Boakye. The pandemic presented fresh challenges that Dine Diaspora was able to meet. Their speaker series—Dish and Sip—was easy enough to move online, and they recently hosted several Twitter chats and Instagram Live sessions. They’re also taking what they learned and creating online classes for African food businesses looking to better their brand development and marketing skills. 

Now, they’re focusing on how to spotlight the work of Black culinary creatives for their increasingly global online audience. “We’re going to think of a bigger picture, which includes providing more offerings online for people who don’t have access to come to one of our events physically,” says Nana Ama Afari-Dwamena. While the majority of their online audience is U.S.-based, there is a prominent and growing following from the United Kingdom, Ghana, and Nigeria. “I think it’s a great opportunity to interview someone based in South Africa and have people here learn about their craft, their product, and what they’re doing in the food space,” she says. —Sabrina Medora

Daniella Senior, CEO, Colada Shop and Serenata

As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, Daniella Senior knew she wanted to have her own business. She started a catering company in high school, which eventually funded her culinary education. Senior brought that entrepreneurial spirit to the District as a partner at Colada Shop, Michelin-starred Bresca, and Serenata. She pays forward her success by helping others—especially women of color—reach their potential.

Senior is a mentor with the Latino Economic Development Center, where she helps Latinx entrepreneurs with business plans, marketing, and finance. One of her regular customers had suggested she get involved, and she took on the challenge. “I ask myself, ‘How can I impact women’s lives beyond hiring them?’” she says. “In order to have more equilibrium in the industry, we need to have more women business owners.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, Senior and her team hosted a series of fundraisers such as the Back to Black cocktail pop-up spotlighting Black bartending talent and doughnut pop-up Doña Dona, benefitting immigrant aid organization Ayuda. For Doña Dona, Senior partnered with pastry chef Paola Velez.

“One of my best talents is recognizing talent,” Senior says. “That is what I see with Paola.” Velez says the feeling is mutual: “Working with Daniella during COVID-19 on Doña Dona was a breath of fresh air. We got to do something that has to do with our homeland, the Dominican Republic. It brought a sense of home for both of us.”

Asked about the role community service plays in the restaurant industry, Senior says making an impact is now more important than putting food on plates. “People want to know what restaurant owners are doing to support farmers, [their] local community, and nonprofit organizations.” 

Aside from community work, Senior has helped shape the perception of Latin American cuisine in D.C. and across the nation. “My goal with Serenata and Colada Shop is to change the impression of Latino food in our country,” she says. “Our food is not just hole-in-the-wall food. In the United States, Latin American food is not perceived with value. Our food is labor intensive. It takes time and love to make. I want the public to know that.” —Jessica van Dop DeJesus

Paola Velez, Executive Pastry Chef, Maydan and Compass Rose

Local pastry chefs Paola Velez and Willa Pelini, together with Oyster Oyster chef Rob Rubba, set out with little more than an idea, an Instagram account, a hashtag, and a Google form when they launched Bakers Against Racism. The effort, intended to raise money for local community organizations that fight systemic racism, anti-Black violence, and inequality, quickly surpassed their expectations. 

Organizers hoped to recruit 80 participants and asked each baker to make a minimum of 150 pastries that would sell for $8 each. In the end, the grassroots movement went global. More than 2,400 Bakers Against Racism participants, spread across 200 U.S. cities, 16 countries, and five continents, raised a total of $1,859,234.

“The culinary community for me has been the giving tree of all communities,” Velez says. “We were able to use our resources yet again to bring folks together in a very gloomy and perilous time in society. We’re the glue that binds us together.” 

Velez, a 2020 James Beard Award nominee, was furloughed from her executive pastry chef job at Kith/Kin in March. Earlier this month, she announced her departure from the kitchen she shared with Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Now, she’s the executive pastry chef at Compass Rose and Maydan. In her announcement, Velez wrote, “I’m excited for the opportunity to continue to weaponize my food to fight for social justice and equity for womxn, both within and outside of the culinary industry.”

Born in the Bronx, Velez spent many of her summers in the Dominican Republic, where her family is from. She isn’t shy about speaking up—activism is baked into her career that’s included stops at Milk Bar, Iron Gate, and Arroz. At Kith/Kin, she says, she used her platform to elevate minority voices, and at Rose Previte’s restaurants she’ll celebrate women. 

“Women are often forgotten from conversations and women of color don’t even get mentioned,” Velez says. “As a woman of color, my responsibility is not only to set a pathway for myself, but to also clear the rubble from behind me for others as I’m breaking through. I only know how to use food and Instagram, but I’ll keep using my experiences and my ability to continuously represent women of color in leadership.” —Laura Hayes

Chris Bradshaw, Executive Director, Dreaming Out Loud

Chris Bradshaw moved to D.C. 20 years ago to attend Howard University. “Being from the South and coming up around food and farming, I always saw it as part of my upbringing,” the Nashville native, whose grandfather was a sharecropper in Georgia, says. “But I became detached from it.” 

Before founding his nonprofit, Dreaming Out Loud, in 2008, Bradshaw worked as a server at Busboys and Poets, the Cheesecake Factory, and Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. In between restaurant jobs, he would write grants for public charter schools. When a teacher got sick, Bradshaw stepped in to teach a character development class over the summer at Nia Community Public Charter School. The class eventually evolved into an afterschool program. 

“That’s when I noticed issues around food,” he says. “Teens would show up with Arizona Iced Tea and Honey Buns. We were out in August heat. It wasn’t a recipe for them to make it through the day.”

Bradshaw recognized that people living in D.C.’s food deserts lack access to healthy food and economic opportunities due to the racial wealth gap. His multi-faceted nonprofit seeks to tackle both inequalities at once by employing people in food and agriculture jobs. “The model of begging a big box grocer to come to D.C. needs to come to an end,” he says. “Our mission is to create economic opportunities for marginalized communities through an equitable food system.”

DOL is headquartered in Ward 7, where it operates a two-acre farm at Kelly Miller Middle School. Bradshaw sources produce from a network of local farms, which District residents can purchase with SNAP benefits at five farmers markets. Since 2008, DOL’s community farmers markets have provided 60,000 low-income customers with 600,000 pounds of healthy food. 

On Juneteenth, DOL launched a Black Farm CSA that runs from July 15 to November 18. At least one product every week will come from Black farmers. The new program allowed DOL to hire five people from the community as food hub assistants. 

In recent years, the organization has evolved to include a 16-month business accelerator for food startups. Graduates include District Chop Bar, Taylored Taste, Pinke’s E.A.T.S., and Green Things Work. Several played a role in DOL’s COVID-19 response. 

Bradshaw says that, since the start of the pandemic, DOL has coordinated, produced, and distributed more than 130,000 meals and thousands of pounds of groceries to 10 sites across the District, mostly in Wards 7 and 8. 

“We’ve used the food system not just to help folks be recipients of aid, but [to become] agents of changing circumstances in their own communities,” Bradshaw says, reflecting on 12 years of work. He’s found his way back to the land. “When you get reconnected, it’s a lineage and a legacy you feel really proud to carry.” —Laura Hayes

Tambra Raye Stevenson, CEO and Founder, WANDA Academy 

Days before Juneteenth, the D.C. government granted Tambra Raye Stevenson’s WANDA Academy $50,000 to enroll 50 low-income women living in Wards 7 and 8 in a free virtual nutrition class. WANDA, a nonprofit based out of Anacostia and Abuja, Nigeria, stands for Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture. It promotes better health and nutrition outcomes for women and girls of African descent through education and advocacy.

The timing was special for Stevenson—all the work she’s done to better the health of Black women in D.C. and beyond has been in honor of her great-great-great grandmother, Henrietta, the last enslaved person in her family. Although Juneteenth celebrates the day in 1865 when federal orders in Galveston, Texas, proclaimed all enslaved people in Texas were free, Stevenson says Henrietta remained enslaved long after that, and only had a few years to live after emancipation.

“That’s why I do this work, in honor of the so many Henriettas that are in our family’s history, that have not been celebrated and uplifted for the pathway they have made for us to walk,” Stevenson says.

In addition to serving as the founder and CEO of WANDA, Stevenson sits on the D.C. Food Policy Council and conducts research at American University, where she is pursuing a doctorate. Throughout her career, Stevenson has used her Nigerian and Southern culinary heritage to empower Black women and girls to eat healthily on their own terms.

“I’ve asked myself, ‘What’s the change that I want to see? What is that pain point?’” Stevenson says. “For me, that pain point was not seeing a space or platform that saw value in the intersectional issues of Black women and girls in the food system.”

As she raised her two children Stevenson says she became aware of the lack of strong Black figures in the health world they could look up to. “I knew once Michelle Obama was out of office, the writing was on the wall,” Stevenson says. She took matters into her own hands and authored a children’s book, Where’s WANDA? It follows Little Wanda, a Black girl searching for food to feed her grandmother, who has diabetes.

“My hope and goal with my work is to highlight hidden figures across the food system that our communities have never been exposed to, besides images of Aunt Jemima,” Stevenson says. “It’s about not only emancipating us of our diets, of changing and embracing our cultural food ways and returning that to our heritage, but it’s also about emancipating our minds.” —Ella Feldman

Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman, Co-founders, RASA

While many restaurant kitchens have been eerily quiet during the COVID-19 pandemic, fast-casual Indian restaurant RASA has been cranking out hundreds of meals per day. Since the start of the crisis, in partnership with World Central Kitchen, Off Their Plate, and Real Food for Kids, the Navy Yard restaurant has prepared close to 40,000 meals for those in need, including free meals for students, health care workers, and financially strapped hospitality industry employees. 

Restaurants continually show their worth as charitable partners, even while being tested in the hardest of times. “It’s so important for any business to think about what it stands for, what its values are, and what role it’s performing in society more broadly,” says RASA co-founder Sahil Rahman. “We have an opportunity and obligation to find ways to lift people up and support those around us. Not only does it feel good and provide a sense of purpose, it’s also really good business.” 

Rahman and his co-founder, Rahul Vinod, were able to mobilize and feed the community after raising $70,000. NFL player Vernon Davis, a RASA investor, helped the restaurant pull in $30,000 through his foundation and JBG SMITH Cares donated $40,000. 

The relief meals are typical RASA bowls, but tempered for mass appeal. “Nothing too spicy,” Vinod explains. “We change the menu on a daily basis. It’s cool people who have never experienced Indian food are getting their meals in this way.” 

Luring Washingtonians to try Indian food for the first time was RASA’s goal since it launched in 2017. The founders chose a familiar build-a-bowl format, but customers layer turmeric ginger shrimp, green jackfruit, lentil chips, and coriander chili chutney atop bases like South Indian rice noodles.

“So many people tried RASA for the first time on the way to baseball games,” Rahman says. Sometimes patrons pop in for a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon and get hungry enough to order a bowl without realizing they’re ordering Indian food. “When we first started this, we were really excited to be that bridge to Indian cuisine and culture,” Rahman continues. “We’re a space for South Asians to feel seen.” —Laura Hayes

Andrea Talhami, Produce RX Manager, DC Greens

Andrea Talhami has been managing the Produce RX program with local nonprofit DC Greens since October 2018. It allows local physicians to write prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables, which patients can redeem at the Giant on Alabama Avenue SE. The goal is to target low-income District residents experiencing diet-related chronic illnesses in Ward 8. At the program’s core is the idea that food is medicine. 

Talhami hails from the Mexican border town of Mexicali. She grew up playing sports, and her love of athletics prompted her to obtain an undergraduate degree in kinesiology. Later, she received a master’s in food policy and nutrition from Tufts University. “I went to grad school thinking, ‘I’ll teach people to eat right and that’ll be it,’” she says. “Then there was the realization that the problem was much bigger with underlying causes for obesity and other chronic conditions.” 

Before joining DC Greens, Talhami ran a program that trained women in underserved communities in Boston to become fitness instructors. “If you really invest in people and communities, there’s a big impact,” she says. Upon moving to D.C. six years ago, she took a job with D.C. Central Kitchen monitoring and evaluating programs. 

Talhami describes the Produce RX program as a tool for doctors to have a better relationship with their patients. “It’s challenging to have conversations around health, behavior, and nutrition when doctors know patients cannot and do not have the means to follow that advice,” she says.

The program thus far is limited in scope—only AmeriHealth Caritas patients can currently participate. Talhami’s chief goal is to make Produce RX accessible to all Washingtonians on Medicaid. “Working with the health care system is one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had, because it’s so convoluted,” Talhami says. 

But she’s not giving up. “If we can prove to those who have power in health care that investing in programs like this actually works, there can be a huge change within the system to better serve all patients, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity,” she says. Talhami would also like to add more locations where patients can redeem their $20 in Produce RX dollars every week. 

Part of Talhami’s job is sharing best practices with organizations offering similar programs across the country. They’re all slightly different. “What works in D.C. might not work in more rural areas,” she explains. “If we come together, we’ll have a stronger body of evidence that programs like this work.” —Laura Hayes