While many Americans associate the phrase “there’s nothing to eat,” with “we need to go grocery shopping,” there’s a shocking number for whom it really means, “Which one of us is going to eat tonight?” In fact, one in five U.S. children live in a household with food insecurity, which means that they don’t know how or where they will get their next meal. Of course, this statistic rises substantially once you leave America. Worldwide, there are 870 million people who are chronically undernourished, most of whom live in developing countries. As my church cares deeply about serving those who are vulnerable in the U.S. and abroad, we try to find ways to alleviate this need. We host our local homeless service organization twice a week, but also try to make cultural change as well. This year, we purposely chose to hold our Food Day celebration between the relatively new national event to promote affordable and sustainable food and the U.N.’s World Food Day, which raises awareness of international hunger.
Like last year’s event, we showed an uplifting movie that showcased the themes of the day. While last year’s Ingredients spread a wide net on eating habits nationwide, A Community of Gardeners focused on gardens right in our backyard of D.C. It’s a movie I had been waiting to see for ages, so I was excited for both the opportunity to see it and talk to the filmmaker afterwards.
Unfortunately, our event this year wasn’t nearly as successful in terms of turn-out as the year before. While we had about 50 people last year, we had a substantially smaller crowd this year. We had it on a Saturday afternoon this year and between Oktoberfest down the street and the Metro stop being closed, I think there was just too much competition for an audience.
But for a small crowd, we had the right people. One of my fellow volunteers used to work for the county council and managed to get both a member of the county council and a state representative show up. I think they were disappointed that they were speaking to so few people, but I appreciated the chance to communicate to them directly. In particular, both I and Cintia Cabib (the filmmaker) emphasized supporting programs that allow people to double SNAP benefits (food stamps) at farmers’ markets. I also learned some helpful facts, both frustrating and encouraging. On one hand, the county has seen a 145% increase in SNAP benefit use since the beginning of the recession. But I also learned that there is an incredibly low number of food deserts in my area. While the councilmember said there were none and the USDA map slightly disagrees, the fact that the number is so small for a large county is good news indeed!
Despite the low turnout, we still managed to hold a powerful event. My pastor started off by offering a personal testimony about his family’s experience. Several years ago, his family ate like any normal Southern family – fast food that was often processed. But when one of his sons was diagnosed with both autism and multiple food sensitivities, his whole perspective immediately changed. Referring to the inability to bring his son to McDonalds, he said, “Can my son be happy if his meals are not?” The answer ended up being yes, but it took a while for him to figure out how.
The movie was equally moving, showcasing a diversity of gardeners and community spaces. From Fort Stevens garden near the old Walter Reed hospital to Melvin Hazen run by the National Parks Service, they represented the best parts of the city. My favorite was Nature’s Retreat, a garden at a school for mentally and physically disabled children. The garden is specially designed to accommodate students in wheelchairs and is equipped with adaptive tools. The children move through sections where they can exercise their senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste. One of the best parts of the entire movie is when student Daquinn says, “When I come out here, I feel happy, cool, and normal.” On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Corinicia Prince, a garden manager describes how she’s found healing in gardening as well. A cancer survivor, she says that because of the garden and the food she harvests, “I don’t think about being sick anymore.”
Another common theme was the ability for gardens to cultivate a reminder of immigrants’ homelands. Gardeners originally from Puerto Rico, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, and Romania all said that gardening helps them carry on their culture in their new home. Considering that these places are very different from each other, it’s clear that gardening’s connection to the land has little to do with geography and everything to do with building community.
The last beautiful theme was the idea of gardening allowing people to support themselves. The movie covers the history of community gardens, which started in Detroit in the 1870s. From one city, it grew to producing $520 million worth of food in WWI. In the current day, the movie follows Common Good City Farm from its beginning as a small garden on another non-profit’s land to a major food producing organization that trains low-income folks in agricultural skills. Maria Barrera, one of the gardeners there says, “When I get this food on Wednesday, this is my food for the week … This helps me keep my dignity.”
When the movie ended, we had a great conversation with Cintia Cabib, the filmmaker. She’s been able to distribute the movie to PBS channels across the country, several of which have shown the movie multiple times. Although we were the first to show it in Montgomery County, I hope that we’re not the last.
Despite our small turnout, I was glad we held our Food Day situation. We’ll just try to have it on a less busy day next year!
Did you celebrate Food Day or have you in the past? Do you think it was useful for raising awareness in your community?