Planting the Seeds of Justice at the DC Food Future Summit

Earlier this month, DC’s Healthy Affordable Food for All (HAFA) held the first ever DC Food Future Summit.  Over 300 attendees gathered to share food, stories, and ideas, and to dream big about what the future of DC’s food system could and should look like.

HAFA is a coalition group that brings together Washingtonians who occupy all kinds of positions within the food chain – from local farmers to nonprofit fundraisers, from parents and consumers to backyard beekeepers – to work together to build a more just food system.  Over the last two years, HAFA has conducted a series of 15 “community brainstorms” with residents from all 8 Wards of DC, asking participants about what their communities’ food systems look like, what is working, what isn’t, and what they’d like to see in the future.

The stories and data amassed from these listening sessions are truly impressive, and provide a nuanced and colorful picture of what it means to eat and live in DC.  The DC Food Future Summit served as an opportunity to celebrate the completion of the brainstorms and to share the results with the wider DC food movement.  The summit featured an exciting variety of workshops and activities: from a discussion on race and privilege in the food system, to food demos by local caterers and chefs, to a “Collaboratories” session in which local cultural organizers and artists facilitated the production of a creative performance in response to the question: What is food justice?

In the afternoon, Real Food Real Jobs hosted a “Worker Justice is Food Justice” session, which highlighted several great organizations working for food and labor justice in DC.  Just this past month, workers in three different parts of the food chain pushed back against a food system designed to squeeze the working families that are its life blood – Restaurant Opportunities Center, DC mobilized around paid sick days for tipped workers in DC, RESPECT DC and OUR Walmart led historic Black Friday walkouts and strikes at Walmart stores around the area, and American University Bon Appetit food service workers led over 120 of their coworkers and students in a delegation to their managers.

Jorge Aguilar from Food and Water Watch spoke about RESPECT DC, a coalition group working to ensure that the six new Walmarts scheduled for construction in DC will “agree to an enforceable community benefits agreement guaranteeing that it will treat its workers with dignity, provide full-time living wage jobs with affordable health and retirement benefits, and help our neighborhoods improve their economic standing and quality of life.” Aguilar explained that Walmart’s efforts to portray themselves as the solution to the food crisis, even though they are a large part of the problem: “Walmart is able to make $16.5 billion in profits every year because they pass the cost down the chain, by paying workers low wages and squeezing their producers. They pay their workers very little so they have to come to Walmart and contribute to the company’s profits. It’s a vicious cycle. We have a race to the bottom. Low wages. Bad food.”

Bon Appetit workers from American University (AU) and Gallaudet University also spoke on the panel and echoed Jorge’s message by highlighting the importance of accountable institutions in the form of not just businesses but also universities. Christine Hamlett-Williams, who has worked as a cashier at AU for 35 years, told the crowd that her son is on dialysis due to a nutrient-poor, over-processed diet. She explained that she is now fighting for real food to protect her students’ health in the hopes that they can avoid such diet-related illnesses. Hamlett-Williams said, “I thought I couldn’t fight this battle by myself…I was ready to retire, but now that I’ve gotten involved with this movement, I’m ready to stay for as long as I’m needed.”  Workers and organizers from all three campaigns will continue standing in solidarity with one another in the New Year, working to improve access to nutritious food and quality jobs in their communities.

The DC Food Future Summit demonstrated that a vibrant and diverse movement for a more just and sustainable food system is alive and well in DC.  We’re excited to see what will come next as we continue to work together for food justice throughout the district.

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