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AU’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities lab works to fight food insecurity

$2.8 million grant from Novo Nordisk will help continue research

A $2.8 million grant was given to American University’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities lab to address food insecurity in Wards 7 and 8 of D.C. and to increase the number of Black farmers producing locally grown fruit and vegetables. 

The grant comes from Novo Nordisk Inc., a healthcare and pharmaceutical company. The money is being distributed to organizations in the area to support their work. 

The Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities lab at AU focuses on community-driven grants that support healthy lifestyles from the individual level to the organizational and community level through systems and policy change. Food insecurity is a point of research, specifically access to grocery stores, according to program director Robin McClave. 

“Full-service grocers play a huge role in being sources of consistent affordable fresh foods which are critical to staying healthy,” McClave said. “That’s an area of focus and concern and a bigger piece of the food system equation.”

In 2017, the D.C. Policy Center found that food deserts — geographic areas where people have limited access to healthy food — make up about 11 percent of D.C.’s total area and are concentrated in the neighborhoods of Anacostia, Barry Farms, Mayfair and Ivy City. 51 percent of all D.C. food deserts are located in Ward 8, and Ward 7 contains the second largest portion of food deserts at 31 percent. AU’s Ward 3 had no areas considered a food desert. 

In 2024, Open Data D.C. found that of 85 full-service grocery stores in the city, nine percent were located in Wards 7 and 8. Two grocery stores included in the data set — Good Food Markets in Ward 8 and Yes! Organic Market in Ward 7 has permanently closed. 

The population of Wards 7 and 8 are majority Black and are the most low-income areas in the city. Kids Count Data Center reported in 2022 that about 24 percent of Ward 7 residents and about 28 percent of Ward 8 residents live below the poverty line. These figures are twice that of wards west of the Anacostia River, such as Wards 2 and 3. These economic disparities compound with historic racial marginalization and gentrification in D.C. 

More recently, Giant, the one full-service grocery in Ward 8, has been in danger of closing. Giant has repeatedly said that theft at the location has made it challenging to operate and make a profit. In September 2023, the store reduced its offerings, removing brand-name products such as Tide laundry detergent and Dove soap from its shelves. 

Anastasia Snelling, the lab’s director and the chair of the Department of Health Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, said in a Nov. 3 press release that, “Obesity, high blood pressure and other chronic ailments that disproportionately affect residents in Wards 7 and 8 show how the food system is not serving all residents in Washington, D.C. Transforming the food system is needed to improve health for all.” 

According to McClave, the lab has broken down its approach with this grant into three different sections: production, distribution and consumption. That means working with farms, the people who get food to organizations and the community members who are eating the food. 

On Feb. 15, the project launch was hosted at DC Central Kitchen, one of the grantees and a nonprofit combating hunger and poverty. Other grantees include the Mid-Atlantic Black Farmers Caucus, FRESHFARM, The Arc, Leadership Council for Healthy Communities and Urban Outreach DC.

Bria Hamlet, the program manager for the Novo Nordisk project, said that the lab hopes to extend the grant after three years and make the project sustainable in the long term.  

According to Hamlet, the project is in the beginning stages, but the team plans to start conducting surveys at corner stores. DC Central Kitchen has approximately 54 stores in the Healthy Corners program and will choose about 10 stores to focus on in Wards 5, 7 and 8. The evaluation will ask residents questions about food insecurity — such as how customers feel about the produce available and how far they traveled to get to the store. 

“The best way to reach people is to talk to them directly, one-to-one,” Hamlet said. “Being able to talk to people, you get the richest sense of what’s going on with them. They’re either more comfortable and willing to share or you’re just able to capture more because you have their attention in the moment.”

Hamlet said that it is important to understand that it can be sensitive to ask someone about their food security status. 

“You never want to make someone feel like you are pitying them instead of empowering them to have a say in what’s going on in their neighborhood and their environment, particularly in environments that are often marginalized anyway,” she said. 

Each grantee is required to have an evaluation tool on their progress, according to Kaitlyn Kelley, the research coordinator for the project. Kelley said she is collecting this data to share with Novo Nordisk. For example, there may be checkpoints at farmer's markets for shoppers to provide feedback. 

“I think it’s really important to amplify everyone’s voice in their community,” Kelley said. “I think everyone should really have a say in the different programs … that are being given to them, that they’re a part of. You don’t want to create a program without having the consumer in mind. You want to have their feedback because it’s how the program can grow.”

Hamlet explained that the grantees were chosen based on existing relationships with the communities they are serving as most of the organizations are physically in Wards 7 and 8 to reach residents. 

A Community Advisory Board is in the works for the future, which will include farmers, entrepreneurs and community activists who live in or contribute directly to Wards 7 and 8 to give their feedback on the program, according to Hamlet. 

Thelonious Cook is the president of The Mid-Atlantic Black Farmers Caucus — which started in August 2023 – and the owner and operator of Mighty Thundercloud Edible Forest, a five-acre farm in Birdsnest, Virginia.

“The vision is really to create a sustainable regional food system, where we can produce all of what we consume right here from the region,” Cook told The Eagle. 

At his farm, Cook said he likes to focus on niche crops with ethnic histories. He cited yellow watermelons and African varieties of okra as examples. He also “grows staple crops that African Americans are accustomed to in the South,” such as collard greens, sweet potatoes and turnips. 

Cook said that he works with community-based partners, food banks and other organizations that are feeding food desert areas and focuses specifically on “historically underserved producers,” such as Black and Indigenous farmers. 

“As farmers, we feel very strongly about organizing ourselves so that we can be able to … distribute food to the areas that need it,” Cook said.  “It’s really about … ensuring that our Black farmers are going to be successful and be sustainable and be here for the next generations.”

The Caucus was given a small portion of the grant money from the Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities lab back in January to sponsor two coach buses to transport Caucus members on three local farm tours across D.C. 

Cook said that the Caucus is a “support network” that is “reestablishing focus on community.”

“We had never really united and come together as a regional community and that’s one of the things that we’ve been able to do in a very short time,” Cook said. 

McClave emphasized the importance of listening to the residents in the communities that the lab is working to serve. 

“We’re in the community. We’re listening to residents. We’re hearing what they want and what they need, and we’re constantly updating and modifying our projects and programs to be that,” McClave said. “We want to make sure that it’s not just us creating a program based off of data and research, but also based off of the interest and focus of community members and what they believe their community and neighborhoods need the most to stay healthy.”

This article was edited by Walker Whalen, Zoe Bell, Tyler Davis and Abigail Turner. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Ariana Kavoossi.

administration@theeagleonline.com 


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