Barren grocery-store shelves and long lines at food banks are some of the indelible images of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because food insecurity was one of the myriad issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as unemployment jumped dramatically, supply chains were disrupted and many Americans faced economic hardship. As a result, households already struggling to access quality, affordable food faced even tighter food budgets and fewer safe transportation options. To alleviate this food-access gap experienced largely by Black and Latinx households, our Food Security Initiative partners stepped up in a major way, quickly pivoting to add emergency food response to their normal programming.
Oasis Community Partners works to improve food access and community health. The organization currently operates Good Food Markets, a small-format grocery store in the District of Columbia’s Ward 5, and our funding is helping them open a store in Ward 8. When the stay-at-home order was issued in D.C., Executive Director Philip Sambol says Oasis was in the thick of planning its 2020 educational programs — cooking classes, healthy snacks for kids and nutrition counseling — all intended to take place in libraries, schools, YMCAs and community recreation centers. While Good Food Markets remained open and operational, the Oasis team had to quickly recalibrate to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the community.
With emergency funding from the Foundation and others, Oasis added a “food hub” to Good Food Markets’ in-store operations, distributing boxes and bags of fresh local produce. They did this in partnership with our partner 4P Foods to support the local community and invest dollars into the regional food system. With our support, Oasis purchased a cold-storage delivery vehicle and hired a coordinator to assist with direct deliveries.
“Our first pop-up food bank ran out of produce bags in 45 minutes,” says Mr. Sambol. “That showed us just how bad the need was.” By late summer, Oasis had more than 600 people registered for the food bank. According to Mr. Sambol, about half had been food insecure prior to the pandemic, and the other half reported becoming food insecure because of it.
Oasis Community Partners added a pop-up emergency food hub (top photo) outside Good Food Markets in D.C.’s Ward 5. Other partners — including FRESHFARM (above left) and Dreaming Out Loud, Inc. (above right) — also adapted to meet urgent community food needs during the pandemic.
Hannah Chichester, Community Health Manager for Oasis, recalls one generous woman who came to the food bank every week. “She not only picked up food for her large family, but seven or eight other families as well,” she says. “Another man who lives down the block from the store had recently lost his job and was unable to afford fruits and vegetables for his family. But because of our pop-up food banks, he’s been able to keep fresh produce on the table and help keep his loved ones healthy.”
In addition to directly providing food, Oasis found a new way to provide food education.
“We wanted to help food bank recipients know what to do with the food they were receiving and empower them to make something healthy and delicious for their families,” Mr. Sambol says. So, the Oasis team converted their originally planned cooking classes to cooking videos — using the exact produce from the produce bags. They also shared information regarding healthy eating, cooking on a budget and managing stress on Oasis’ new lifestyle blog.
The gratitude the team has received from community members is what keeps them going. But ultimately, Ms. Chichester says, “This is just a big Band-Aid. There are so many structural issues within the food system that need to be fixed, and there’s so much more work to be done to make sure everyone has access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Changes need to be made on a policy level to address the real problem.”
Mr. Sambol concurs. “When COVID-19 goes away, food insecurity will not go away,” he says. “How do we continue to serve that need? We will keep working to create access to local produce for those who don’t have a budget for it. We need to keep our community fed and healthy both through this unprecedented time and after we’ve put the coronavirus behind us.”
Other Partner Highlights
FRESHFARM is committed to promoting sustainable agriculture while enhancing food access and equity in the Mid-Atlantic food system. We first partnered in 2017 with Community Foodworks (which last year merged with FRESHFARM) to support its Pop-Up Food Hub, an innovative model of food distribution that brings fresh local food to underserved areas. That food hub quickly scaled and pivoted at the onset of the pandemic. FRESHFARM’s Family Share, which provides a weekly supply of fresh fruits and vegetables to vulnerable families, transitioned from pickup to direct home delivery, and from a subsidized to a free participation model. FRESHFARM’s primary focus is supporting families with kids in early childhood, which is made possible by long-standing partnerships with Easter Seals, United Planning Organization (UPO), House of Ruth and other partners.
Since the end of March, FRESHFARM has sold or distributed about 15,000 pounds of produce per week, representing significant revenue for local farmers and an invaluable source of nutrition for seniors and families with young children. Distribution increased from about 400 bags per week in March 2020 to about 700 bags per week by July. Each family share bag contains seasonal fruits and vegetables from regional farms with an amount sufficient for a family of two adults and two children to cook 18-24 servings per family member for one week.
Dreaming Out Loud
Dreaming Out Loud, Inc. (DOL), works to create economic opportunities within marginalized D.C. communities by building a healthy, equitable food system. Like our other Food Security partners, when COVID-19 hit, DOL prioritized emergency food distribution.
The Foundation provided funding that supported transportation, distribution, personal protective equipment and volunteer stipends for DOL’s emergency food distribution. DOL also contracted directly with World Central Kitchen to provide logistics and coordination support for more than 250,000 meals, driving over $350,000 in revenue to four Black woman-owned businesses. Through this and other partnerships, DOL supported community-based hiring and the purchase of a refrigerated vehicle to facilitate sustained community food support.