Cherries from Kilmer's Farm Market Credit: Kilmer's Farm Market

Like many people around the world, Derek Kilmer felt alarmed during the first three months of the pandemic. His family farm in Martinsburg, West Virginia, which his grandfather started in the 1940s, was in jeopardy. Kilmer’s Farm Market specializes in growing orchard fruit for schools, including some in Virginia’s Arlington and Loudoun counties. “School just stopped everywhere and it was just panic mode,” he says. 

Kilmer had always sold some fruit to nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen, but most of those apples and peaches also made their way to kids in schools. Then something changed. “D.C. Central Kitchen orders started going from minuscule because school wasn’t in session to these crazy numbers,” Kilmer says. “Now we’re running three trucks a week to D.C. We went from being worried that we might go out of business to actually being profitable for the larger part of the year.”

DCCK, which has worked to address hunger and its root causes in the D.C. region for more than 30 years, had to find new ways to reach people during the pandemic. “One thing we did in response to the community’s immediate needs was distribute produce bags,” says CEO Mike Curtin, Jr. “We wanted to meet the community where they were and worked with mutual aid groups and small nonprofits to do about 6,000 bags a week. That’s a little over two million pounds in produce.”

Photo of meal prep courtesy of D.C. Central Kitchen

Most of the produce came from small family farms like Kilmer’s Farm Market and farm hubs like 4P Foods that collect products from multiple farms. DCCK has been able to invest nearly $2 million in more than 70 farms since March 2020. The organization worked with fellow nonprofit Dreaming Out Loud to ensure that some of them were Black-owned.

Not only did the fruits and vegetables make their way into produce bags, but DCCK cooks incorporated them into the 4 million emergency meals they distributed to 200 locations across the D.C. Some reached corner stores as a part of DCCK’s Healthy Corners Program.

Curtin says DCCK has worked with local farms since around 2006. “We were doing it before it was cool,” he says. “But over the last 14 months, we significantly increased that investment and recognized that we could do more. So many of these small farms were hurt when outlets they serviced closed or markedly shut down. Many of these small farms told us if it wasn’t for the volume we were buying, they would have gone out of business. We’re talking about multigenerational farms closing. As the bumper sticker says—farmland lost is lost forever.” 

D.C. Central Kitchen got some help—Craig Newmark, the Craig behind Craigslist, made a matching grant of $300,000. The goal is for Newmark’s contribution to inspire donors to open their wallets to support DCCK’s spring fundraising campaign that will allow the organization to carry out several objectives. Funds will continue to support small, local farms and DCCK will also deploy two new food trucks to neighborhoods where children and seniors lack access to healthy food. Some of the money will be used to open DCCK’s second job training cafe in partnership with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. 

Newmark says he was in conversation with advisors about what he could do to help address hunger in our nation’s capital and elsewhere. “Within the last six months it sunk in that this is a big problem and it’s also greatly affecting veterans and their families and active [duty] service members,” he tells City Paper. “That pisses me off, frankly. I thought, ‘I should stand up regarding this.’” 

He says he’s put in about $25 million to help organizations working in the food space. He calls small farms “an indispensable part of the infrastructure for healthy food distribution to food deserts.” 

Curtin, of course, agrees. “Local farms have always and continue to be an incredibly important piece of our culture and economic well being,” he says. “They need to continue to be part of our ecosystem once we put this madness in our collective rearview mirror.”