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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: In D.C.’s Food Justice Renaissance, Honoring Those Who Laid the Foundation

When the exhibition “Food for the People: Eating & Activism in Greater Washington” opened at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum last month, the first people through the door were 95-year-old Vivian Williams and several generations of family members. Prominently featured in one of the exhibition’s sections about the history of food access disparities and community activism, Ms. Williams proudly inspected the photographs, documents, and artifacts that brought her and her colleagues’ stories to life. As a resident of the original Arthur Capper public housing project in Capitol Hill and a staff member of the social services organization Friendship House, Ms. Williams led boycotts and related efforts to hold local grocery stores accountable for their poor treatment of African American customers, their substandard food quality, and their discriminatory pricing tactics in African American neighborhoods (including, for instance, artificially inflating food prices at the times of the month when public assistance checks were issued). Her story — and so many others like it — are worth remembering and honoring as DC experiences a renaissance of food justice organizing.

The exhibition and accompanying events — including the recently held panel discussion, “Food Justice in the Nation’s Capital,” featuring DC Food Policy Director, Ona Balkus, founder/executive director of Dreaming Out Loud, Chris Bradshaw, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, Mike Curtin, Jr., and community organizer with DC Mutual Aid Network, Alexis McKenney — clearly highlight food equity issues in the DC region today. But equally as important, the exhibition project is also uncovering and honoring the stories of generations of DC residents who’ve worked to make our local food system more just and equitable. Vivian Williams’ story is just one among many.

Vivian Williams stands in front of a case containing photographs and documents showcasing her community advocacy work. (Samir Meghelli/Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum)
Vivian Williams stands in front of a case containing photographs and documents showcasing her community advocacy work. (Samir Meghelli/Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum)

In the late 1960s, Ms. Williams’ neighbor and fellow Friendship House staff member Beatrice Gray led a response to the price-gouging supermarkets: she organized buying clubs across Southeast Washington whose members joined together to buy bulk food from wholesalers at cheaper prices. In 1970, she converted the buying clubs into a brick-and-mortar store, the Martin Luther King Jr. Co-op, which operated in the basement of an Arthur Capper building for more than a decade. It was the first cooperative grocery store in the nation to open inside of a public housing community.

In the 1980s, the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) operated free health clinics, ran soup kitchens and served as an activism hub for people experiencing homelessness in DC. Mitch Snyder, Carol Fennelly and fellow CCNV members staged an elaborate banquet for members of Congress — with a menu featuring crab quiche, boysenberry shortcake, and bacon-wrapped green beans, made entirely from food recovered from dumpsters outside local supermarkets — to bring national attention to the issue of food waste. In 1982, Congress passed a resolution encouraging grocery stores and wholesalers to distribute edible food that would otherwise be discarded. Soon after, local supermarkets began donating unsold food to the region’s newly forming food banks, sparking a movement that has blossomed since.

DC still faces urgent food access issues today, but there’s renewed interest in addressing them. The city is home to a flourishing community of residents, organizers, advocates, and government officials working to make food justice a reality: an active food policy council, visionary organizing collectives and urban farmers, a robust nonprofit sector, and forward-thinking school meal providers and entrepreneurs. And awareness of the need for a more just and sustainable food system is only growing. Visit the museum’s newly opened exhibition — “Food for the People” — to dive deeper into how we got here, what lessons we can draw from DC’s rich history of food justice organizing, and how we can all contribute to a brighter food future.

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