Director Ona Balkus talks closing the grocery gap, improving food jobs, and supporting urban agriculture. Ona Balkus is an FLPC alumna and former clinical fellow.
So much goes into feeding a city. From growing healthy food and directing it to food-insecure populations to creating stable careers in the food sector and disposing of food waste in a way that regenerates the soil, the workload can be hard to swallow.
For decades, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community groups were tackling how to increase food access, address health disparities, spur urban agriculture, and stimulate the local food economy in silos. There wasn’t enough synergy to lead to milestone advancements.
Then in 2014, the D.C. Council passed the DC Food Policy Council and Director Establishment Act, which sought to bring a body of experts together to foster greater collaboration. The FPC fully launched in the summer of 2016 under the direction of Laine Cidlowski.
When Cidlowski left the District in June 2018, Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Ona Balkus as the new FPC director. Balkus previously served on the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, where she drafted food-related legislation. As a senior clinical fellow at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, Balkus provided guidance to food policy councils from across the country.
“My job is to advise the mayor and the administration on how to strengthen D.C.’s food system in a holistic way,” she says. “That strategic thinking and seeing food as a system wasn’t really happening before.”
The FPC currently includes 10 mayoral appointed leaders, plus representatives from various District agencies. Dreaming Out Loud Executive Director Chris Bradshaw is one of the longest serving FPC members. He too is optimistic about the year ahead. “We’ve entered more of an actualizing phase of making some of the things that were in the books happen,” he says. “There’s been great momentum and we’re seeing it pay off.”
To guide their efforts, the FPC organized their 2020 priorities into five categories: food access and equity; entrepreneurship and food jobs; urban agriculture; sustainable supply chain; and nutrition and food system education. City Paper outlined a handful of highlights below and plans to assess the progress made early next year.
Back Locally Owned Businesses Bringing Healthy Food to Underserved Communities
Many of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are considered food deserts. There are still only three major grocers for the more than 150,000 people living in Wards 7 and 8, and there are few sit-down restaurants offering healthy options, especially when compared to the rest of the city.
Some Washingtonians living in communities east of the river don’t trust big box stores to be part of the solution after Walmart bailed on two projects—one at Skyland Town Center and another at Capitol Gateway.
“Why give more money to Walmart?” Balkus asks. “Why bring in another Safeway when we have a thriving and promising business community of District residents that we can give money to?”
To further close the grocery gap and build even more businesses with buy-in from the community, the FPC is exploring creating a public-private piggy bank called the “DC Good Food Investment Fund.” It will provide grants, flexible loans, and technical assistance to homegrown food businesses such as small grocers or corner stores participating in DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program.
Several such food-related businesses already broke ground or debuted in 2019, proving it’s possible. They include Market 7 in River Terrace, the Fresh Food Factory in Anacostia, and Good Food Markets in Bellevue.
The FPC will team up with community development financial institutions on the fund. CDFIs invest in businesses that have trouble getting loans from traditional banks. Two local examples are the Latino Economic Development Center and Washington Area Community Investment Fund (WACIF). “They’ve both expressed interest in doing this,” Balkus says. The fund is inspired by the Michigan Good Food Fund and California FreshWorks.
Bradshaw feels strongly about fostering community ownership, but also notes that the wealth gap will always be an obstacle. (White households in D.C. have a net worth 81 times that of black households.) Nevertheless, he says, “more businesses and cooperatives launching in the community will facilitate jobs and help people be able to stay in the city.” Affordability is key. “If no one can afford the rent for their home or business, then what kind of city do we have?”
When locally owned food projects come to fruition, Balkus says the FPC needs to get better at informing District residents about their fresh food options. “When we’re out at meetings talking to residents all of these things are always news still,” Balkus says. “We need to figure out a way to celebrate these in a strategic way and make sure businesses are successful when they get off the ground.”
Help Food Entrepreneurs Bring Made-In-D.C. Products to Market
Ask budding food businesses what they need to enter the market or expand and they’ll likely list affordable commercial kitchen space, cold storage, and retail spaces to sell their goods. Commercial kitchen TasteLab closed in 2019, making securing a space at alternatives like Mess Hall, Tastemakers, and Union Kitchen even more competitive.
Opportunities are even scarcer for non-alcoholic beverage makers, some of whom have had to travel to other cities to can their products since the District lacks co-packing facilities. Commercial kitchens built for food businesses don’t always have adequate space for specialized equipment.
Balkus says she hopes new FPC member Emi Reyes from LEDC, together with Katherine Mereand from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development can identify more maker spaces in 2020. “Many churches within the city have commercial kitchens they don’t use frequently,” Reyes says. “It could give churches some revenue and use unoccupied space.”
Convert Food Sector Jobs Into Careers
One of the reasons people enjoy visiting or living in D.C. is its food scene. The New York Times just named the District the number one city to visit in 2020, citing restaurants as a chief reason, and late last year, Bloomberg called D.C. the most exciting food city in America.
“It intrinsically doesn’t make sense to have this foodie culture and all these amazing restaurants that are surviving off people without adequate career pathways,” Balkus says. “It’s one thing to start at a minimum wage job, but it’s another to retire at a minimum wage job.”
Reyes agrees and says D.C.’s Latinx population, which supports much of the food industry, in particular doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. She wants to see more Latinx Washingtonians become majority owners of their businesses. DMV Black Restaurant Week, in its second year, also focused on building pathways to ownership for people of color.
The FPC is awaiting the results of a “DC Food Workforce Development Strategy” that will be co-published by the Department of Employment Services and the Workforce Investment Council. It focuses on improving the quality of food sector jobs. “We conducted 15 one-on-one interviews and convened 65 stakeholders for an all-day meeting,” Balkus says. One finding Balkus points to is how employers can increase retention by offering more benefits and promotion potential.
Balkus says she’s encouraged because the study marks the first time the local government has identified food as a standalone workforce sector deserving of attention: “It’s always been lumped in with hospitality, which means hotels,” she explains. “There are unique challenges that don’t exist in hotels.”
Decode The Steps to Starting a Food Business
A number of District regulations and licensing requirements can stymie a food business’ timely launch. The process is confusing, complex, and costly. Balkus says the first step to cutting through the red tape is understanding all of the requirements for different types of enterprises, from urban farms and cottage food businesses to food trucks and full-service restaurants. “Then we can look at how to streamline it and identify where more resources and expertise is needed,” she says.
Reconsider The Merits of Having a Centralized Kitchen
Some cities have a centralized kitchen where meals are prepared for public institutions. The DC Healthy Schools Act of May 2010 included a requirement to build a central kitchen, but it never happened. “[Ward 3] Councilmember [Mary] Cheh was always frustrated about that,” Balkus says. “It never got funded and it wasn’t clear who the agency lead should be.”
In 2018, the act was amended to have the Office of Planning take on a best practices study to learn how a centralized kitchen could benefit the District. “It looks at how to save money while improving the quality of meals at schools, rec centers, homeless shelters, senior centers, and the jail, as well as how it could be a workforce development tool and how it could support local and regional agriculture,” Balkus says. The study is expected to land in September.
Nurture the District’s Renewed Focus on Urban Agriculture
The benefits of urban agriculture transcend merely growing produce to help address food access. Urban farms show kids where their food comes from, bring neighbors together, help the city become more sustainable, and create jobs. Last year saw a major shift in who will oversee various urban agriculture initiatives.
When the implementation of two key programs created under the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014 saw further delays due to soil testing technicalities, the D.C. Council moved to change who manages them.
Cheh successfully moved the Urban Farming Land Lease Program and Urban Agriculture Tax Abatement Program from the purview of the Department of General Services to a newly created Office of Urban Agriculture housed under the Department of Energy and the Environment. A director of urban agriculture will lead the office and overall greening of D.C. Balkus says applications are closed and the hiring process is moving along.
To aid the city, nonprofits, and community groups operating urban farms, the FPC, together with the University of the District of Columbia, also wants to establish an Urban Agriculture Infrastructure Fund. It would pay for infrastructure necessities such as hoop houses, greenhouses, water hook-ups, and cold storage that can help urban farms thrive.
“These farmers do not need large sums of capital for things that could significantly increase their business revenue and potential,” Balkus says. “There’s a lot of federal money that could go towards this, but it hasn’t made its way to them given our unique set-up as a non-state.”