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A small oasis opens up in a Southeast DC food desert

A small oasis opens up in a Southeast DC food desert

Southeast D.C. is a well-known food desert, with just one typical grocery store operating east of the river.

For years, a constant complaint has been the difficulty that area of the city has in accessing the fresh produce taken for granted in richer parts of the city. Now a local nonprofit is trying to provide a small oasis in that desert.

kicked off at THEARC, a nonprofit facility on Mississippi Avenue Southeast near the Maryland line, operated by the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River. It’s like a free farmers market — giving residents fresh produce grown in urban gardens it operates throughout the city, including one right here on site that lets residents pick their own fruit. Right now they can pluck strawberries right off the vine.

“This is important because there we’re working towards food justice,” said Jessica Smith-Lennan, the deputy director of the 11th Street Bridge Park, which is part of Building Bridges Across the River. “In addition to the fresh foods that is being offered, we also have small businesses that are able to vend and share their goods.”

Those are also locally owned businesses east of the river, often offering artwork, homemade beauty products, and even soaps and candles.

But inside, there were tables filled with grocery bags, ready-made meals and lots of fresh produce, from kale and other leafy greens to cabbage and potatoes — even spices.

“It will help the lack of food and the nourishment that the community needs because some of this is low income,” said Bishop Vance Oldes, a volunteer working at the venue. “So we’re providing help. That will save money for these homes that don’t have what others had. So we’re here to help the unfortunate.”

Supplementing what’s being grown by Building Bridges is the Capital Area Food Bank and DC Central Kitchen.

“Throughout the local growing season, we’ll be able to bring in more and more fresh produce that’s grown locally,” said Lindsay Schneider, the director of direct distribution programs at Capital Area Food Bank. “Currently, we have things like potatoes, cabbage, onions. We’re sort of getting out of those early season crops. Later this summer, we’ll be excited to bring on things like locally grown watermelon, corn, zucchini, all of that delicious summer stuff.”

DC Central Kitchen offers ready-made meals, and every third Friday, they’ll also have free cooking demos. If it can be coordinated, their cooks will offer cooking lessons involving the food available that day. They even plan to offer up some samples, giving people here the “Costco experience.”

“Why not give that experience to people in this ZIP code?” asked Dana Simpson, the community development and partnerships manager for DC Central Kitchen.

“That’s what we’re bringing here. We fight hunger differently,” she added.

Food and Farm Fridays runs from noon to 3 p.m. every Friday through Nov. 15. The available produce will change with the different seasons. Eventually, this event will move to the 11th Street Bridge Park, once that’s built. But it’s still a few years away.

A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park. (Courtesy OMA+OLIN)

“This is a part of showing love. And that’s what the world needs,” said Bishop Oldes. “We need more love. If we can only love each other.”

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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