Fighting Food Insecurity With Summer School Meals From DC Central Kitchen

Photo Essay: How DC Central Kitchen Tackles Hunger, From Food Trucks to Training Programs

The nonprofit is the primary school food provider to 19 Washington, D.C., schools. But kids need meals even when schools close for the summer. Here’s how it feeds kids—and families—where they are.

In late July, as the temperature and humidity rose to dangerous levels, and wildfire smoke lingered in the atmosphere, I got off the M6 Metrobus outside the Atlantic Gardens in Washington, D.C.’s Highlands neighborhood. There, a food truck was offering summer meals to students who might not otherwise have enough to eat.

The truck, emblazoned with photos of fresh fruits and vegetables, is a project of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), the longstanding anti-hunger and job-training nonprofit. DCCK operates two mobile meal trucks, an outgrowth of the organization’s Healthy School Foods program, which began in 2010 and has evolved over time: Today, DCCK is the food service provider for 19 D.C.-area schools.

Children at these schools rely on those meals during the academic year, since they may be their only nutritious meal in a day. But when schools close for summer vacation, they lose that meal option, and their families may struggle to shoulder the added costs of feeding kids at home all summer.

“We really strongly believe that a hungry child is not learning,” explained Sami Reilly, director of contract meals and nutrition at DCCK. But once the school year ends, she adds, the students don’t just go away. “We were like, ‘We were just feeding 5,000 meals a day and now we just go to zero?’”

In response, DCCK began a summer feeding program to support students when they’re out of school. The first step was to ask the community what they needed. Among the first things they realized was just how immense the need was—especially when school is not in session: DCCK currently cooks 10,000 meals a day in the summer and is planning to expand to 25,000 in the near future.

Preparing the meals is just one aspect of the challenge—they must also make sure D.C. residents can access the meals. DCCK has eliminated the need for families to register for the meals, which does away with the potential stigma associated with receiving food assistance.

“To know that they have access to food, regardless of age or any other factors and that they don’t need to be enrolled to get access shows that it’s all-inclusive,” Reilly said.

For families that receive free school meals during the year, the added expense of providing meals and snacks during the summer can be overwhelming.

Ja’Sent Brown, the chief impact officer at DCCK and a mother herself, said that when you factor in inflation, “the cost [becomes] astronomical.”

People of all ages line up to get a fresh meal from DC Central Kitchen’s mobile meal truck. (Photo credit: Jake Price)

Although recent inflation has come close to leveling off—federal data points to a 0.4 percent increase in fresh fruit prices, and 1.1 percent increase in fresh vegetable prices in 2023—last year’s inflation, and retailers’ response to that inflation, is still impacting the price of food on grocery store shelves.

Feeding children in the summer months isn’t new, but the way DCCK engages with children and communities and how it designs its outreach is new and unique. The group has developed a broad and comprehensive set of programs to feed and build communities, while providing training and workforce experience to improve their clients’ economic independence.

In addition to the school meals program and the summer food trucks, DCCK hosts regular community outreach events and recently expanded its headquarters to serve more schools and train more chefs.

A Long Bus Ride Through Food Apartheid

On my way to meet the DCCK food truck, I took a city bus through the neighborhoods it serves in an effort to understand firsthand the challenges that Brown described. As I traveled down Wheeler Avenue, the landscape of one of D.C.’s most challenging food apartheid neighborhoods was revealed. Along the roughly 2-mile route, the bus didn’t pass a single supermarket. Instead, it made its way past a number of convenience and liquor stores offering mainly ultra-processed foods.

Pictured above is Wheeler Market, one of the few places that sell food on the city bus route I took through D.C. Unlike other similar stores in the community, Wheeler Market is a part of DCCK’s Healthy Corners program, which provides fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to local stores that have historically lacked these foods.

Left: a Google map of supermarkets in the larger Washington, D.C., area. Right: A detail of the area East of the Anacostia, where very few grocery options exist to serve residents.

“Along a single avenue in D.C.’s wealthiest corridor, you have seven full-service grocery stores and another under construction. East of the Anacostia River, you have half that number of stores responsible for serving more than 160,000 residents,” explained Alexander Justice Moore, chief development officer for DC Central Kitchen. “This persistent disparity in access to healthy food, and the underlying factors that perpetuate it, have produced a 20-year difference in life expectancy based on which D.C. neighborhood you call home.”

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In this view from the bus, the Chesapeake Big Market is the closest market to the Atlantic Garden Apartments.

“The way they structure a lot of major cities, including here in D.C., is about creating these food apartheid areas,” Brown said. “We [need to] stop saying food desert because deserts are natural. It is not natural to not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables in your own community.”

In this short interview, Ja’Sent Brown talks about building community food security, the challenges that people D.C. face with food accessibility, and how food insecurity can feed into the criminal justice system.
(Audio by Jake Price)

Chesapeake Market is just a two-minute walk from Atlantic Gardens, but it has little to offer in terms of healthy food. The nearest supermarkets are a Giant, 2.2 miles away, and a Safeway with a wider selection but 3.8 miles away. Using public transit to reach the Safeway requires an 80-minute round trip, involving two transfers each way, on buses that arrive about every 30 minutes on weekdays.

Distance and time, which are difficult enough for working parents, are not the only obstacles. Recent increases in summer temperatures and the increase in frequency of heat waves due to climate change have also made shopping in the summer months a challenge.

An elderly man waiting on a stoop to catch the bus told me that he was raised on a farm in Virginia. “It was always hot and humid down there, but the city, with all of its concrete, has become so much worse,” he said. “The heat here in recent years isn’t like anything I’ve experienced before.”

It was 10:15 a.m. when we spoke, and the temperature was already 80 degrees, with 74 percent humidity. The mercury gradually rose throughout the day. By evening, as most parents were getting off work, it had reached 88 degrees, and it felt like 97.

Building Communities, and Economies, While Fighting Food Insecurity

Earlier this year, DCCK partnered with the Washington Nationals baseball team and the Washington Wizards basketball team to bring attention to the summer meals program. During the Wizards’ fan appreciation night, Bradley Beal, one of the team’s star players, donated $96,000 to support the program, ensuring that DCCK could continue providing nutritious meals to thousands of children throughout the summer.

Meals are distributed at Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. Endorsement from a team the kids love makes them more likely to trust the food that is being given out.

(Photo credit: Jake Price)

(Photo credit: Jake Price)

As we reported last year, DCCK has opened up a new headquarters called The Michael R. Klein Center for Jobs and Justice. The expanded facility can greatly expand the number of schools they are serving by adding 12 more. The new 36,000-square-foot facility will allow them to triple their capacity, offering crucial healthy food and serving as a hub for job training, community engagement, and a social enterprise café providing on-the-job training and living wage jobs for graduates.

Left: the new DCCK headquarters. (Photo credit: Jake Price) Right: an archival photo showing the previous headquarters, which shared a building with a shelter for unhoused people. (Photo courtesy of DC Central Kitchen)

The folks at DCCK like to say that the new Klein Center has only one door: Construction workers, U.S. presidents, and students all pass through the same entrance.

(Photo credit: Jake Price)

At its core, DCCK believes that robust dialogue with the students about their preferences is as important as the ingredients themselves—and this philosophy has resonated with other organizations throughout the United States. Justice Moore said that DC Central Kitchen’s model has inspired culinary job training programs and community kitchens across the country, including FoodLink’s culinary program (New York), Second Helping (Indiana), North Texas Food Bank’s culinary program (Texas), Kitchens for Good (California), and Plus Kitchen of Purpose (Virginia).

The organization conducts student focus groups where they gather feedback about what kids want to eat most, rather than a conventional top-down approach with menus dictated solely by nutritional guidelines. When students tire of the menu options, they get the chance to propose new options—and they’re even invited into the kitchen to help cook the recipes themselves.

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Involving students “builds buy-in, increases participation, and makes sure the kids are actually getting the food into their bellies,” Reilly said. As a result, they tend to be more likely to embrace new culinary experiences.

When students go home, DCCK staff say they take this curiosity and desire for better meals with them. Because the meal ideas come from within the community, DCCK’s experience suggests that the whole household is more open to trying them.

And to facilitate access to fresh ingredients that would take hours to retrieve from the far-distant Safeway, DCCK’s Healthy Corners program brings the ingredients families need for the recipes they make at school to corner stores in the neighborhood, like the Wheeler Market my bus route passed.

Through Healthy Corners, DCCK sells fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to store owners at wholesale prices, and in smaller quantities than a conventional distributor, which allows retailers to sell them at a discount.

But even all these efforts aren’t always enough to lure people out of their homes in the dog days of summer. Sometimes delivering meals to locations where children live and play can be key to ensuring families have enough to eat.

“Neighborhood-level disparities already made it tough for many of D.C.’s kids and seniors to get the healthy food they needed, even before this summer’s extreme heat and dangerous air quality issues compounded existing challenges,” Justice Moore said. “These barriers made our efforts to bring healthy meals to accessible locations—including right to people’s front doors—even more crucial.”

(Photo credit: Jake Price)

Jake Price is a New York City-based photographer and filmmaker. After working as a photojournalist and producer at the BBC and New York Times, he shifted his work to filmmaking and immersive media production. Price’s many projects have been awarded by the World Press Photo and have also been displayed internationally. Read more >

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  1. Chris
    This is a really great article; the need for this kind of program is felt in many communities and this program seems like a model that other people can hopefully imitate.

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