A view of Food for the People at the Anacostia Community Museum. Credit: Samir Meghelli

“One out of 10 residents of the metropolitan Washington region is food insecure, and nearly a third of them are children,” according to the Capital Area Food Bank. Food insecurity is a longstanding problem, made even more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic, as individuals and organizations put in work to supplement a food system that fails to meet growing needs.  

The Anacostia Community Museum’s outdoor exhibition Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington—which will be joined by a more extensive indoor exhibition when the museum reopens later this year—confronts this reality by focusing on food, from farming to preparation to access, and ultimately on the impact it has on health. The exhibition is a part of the museum’s larger theme this year, “Our Food, Our Future.” 

The project welcomes visitors with a huge red fork, alongside the question: “What is food justice?” Answers are provided on a series of towers that break down the life cycle of food, from where it comes from to where waste goes. Woven between these towers are portrait-style photographs of 12 changemakers printed on medium size tarp and mounted against wire structures that are weighed down by baskets of rocks. Included are local activists, community leaders, and food and medical industry professionals. 

The project highlights the work the 12 individuals are doing to ensure food security and equity across the city while also educating people about how to get involved in their local community, like joining a local food policy council or donating to a food justice organization. The exhibition ends with a large sculpture of open hands holding an interactive feature that allows people to leave notes on tags, sharing their experiences or thanking food workers, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

The exhibition exposes processes within the food system that all intersect but are often made invisible. “If we can’t name and understand those processes, then we can’t create a more equitable and just food system,” says Samir Meghelli, Ph.D., senior curator at the ACM.

Meghelli spearheaded the research and curation of the exhibition. He spent the last two years conducting over 100 interviews with a combination of activists and community leaders. He even took some of the portraits that accompany quotes from his interviews. During his research, he spent time looking at food systems across D.C., documenting moments like the Grocery Walk of 2017, where people marched to bring awareness to food deserts east of the river at a time when there were only two grocery stores in Wards 7 and one in Ward 8. 

“We wanted to raise awareness about these issues, so people can both have their interest sparked and their curiosity sparked about these issues, while also getting informed about some of the data and content that come with that history,” Meghelli says. “We wanted people to leave the exhibition inspired by what everyday people are doing to transform our injust food system into one that is more just and sustainable.”

Lea Howe, the director of school food initiatives at DC Greens, is featured in the exhibition. Howe hopes to bring attention to DC Public Schools’ food system. “Students cannot be expected to learn and get through the academic day without the proper nutrition fueling them,” Howe says. “As D.C. residents, our tax dollars, both local and federal, fund these programs and, therefore, should align with our values as they pertain to food.” 

The work of leaders dedicated to food justice and community health functions in tandem, despite their varying entry points. One of these leaders is Dr. James Huang, who is an instrumental player in the Produce Rx program, which DC Greens originally ran from 2012 to 2017. In 2019, DC Greens began working in partnership with the D.C. Department of Health, Giant, and AmeriHealth Caritas to create the current grocery store model. The program allows medical professionals to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetables to patients experiencing diet-related chronic illnesses. This program takes a “food-as-medicine” approach by integrating produce prescriptions as one intervention in the overall plan of care.

“I was first connected to the program by doing family health visits at Upper Cardozo Health Center,” Huang says. “Parents and their kids would come to me with the diagnoses of being overweight or simply wanting to learn more about healthy eating, so we held these types of visits once a week and we held nutrition classes.”

The first iteration of the program allowed families to receive a certain amount of money each week to spend at farmers markets with the goal of trying to address health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Now, participating patients receive $80 per month loaded onto a Giant bonus card, plus nutrition information from Giant’s in-store nutritionist and their insurance provider.

“It’s also important that we’re acknowledging food access and putting our families who experience food insecurity in the position to access food; you can’t do one without the other. How do you stay healthy if you can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables?” Huang continues. 

“By highlighting the stories of community leaders and activists, we hope change to community health and ensured well-being feels less far-reaching and more accessible to everyone regardless of zip code or socio-economic status,” Meghelli says. 

At the Anacostia Community Museum Plaza through Sept. 17, 2022. 1901 Fort Place SE. (202) 633-4820. anacostia.si.edu.