D.C. organization helps hungry residents in 'food deserts'

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - Easy access to fresh produce is still a problem for some district residents - but instead of waiting on the arrival of businesses, The D.C. Green Scheme decided to equip residents in Wards 7 and 8 to tackle the issue with their own hands.

In 2011 the nonprofit organization The D.C. Green Scheme was created to help raise environmental awareness in low-income communities in the district.

“We saw that the low-income communities weren't engaging into the health and environmental movement as much as we thought they should be involved,” Ronnie Webb, co-founder of The D.C. Green Scheme, said.

The organization has built two fresh produce gardens in Southeast D.C. -{ } one in the Wheeler Terrace neighborhood and the other in Lincoln Heights - and has helped to revamp other gardens in the city. The communities were selected through a partnership with the D.C. Housing Authority.

Every Saturday and Wednesday evening residents are invited to gardening and cooking demonstrations where they use the fruits and vegetables that have grown in their neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods are located in "food desserts," where grocery stores are more than a mile away. The most popular meals from local carry-out restaurants - which exist on practically every other block - consist of fried chicken wings, French fries and mambo sauce, which are far below recommended nutrition standards.

“In order for us to change that, we have to know what the right stuff to put in your body is,” Webb told a group of youth gardeners, after a colorful discussion about the size of the chicken wings from carry-out businesses.
“[Fresh fruits and vegetables] make you feel a whole lot better. It helps you think a whole lot better, your skin will be a lot better, your hair grows better, everything,” he continued.

In Lincoln Heights the residents have already begun to benefit from access to the garden.

“The Green Scheme has given a new focus to the community, primarily to the residents here, in letting residents know that options do exist in the things that we consume,” resident Dorothy Dinkins said.

This week the gardeners were tasked with removing weeds and the stubs from the vegetables that have already been harvested, and building a new raised bed for summer strawberries.

“We have residents that come and pick from our garden. When they're hungry, if they want collards, kale, broccoli - anything they want, they have 24-hour access.” Webb said proudly.

Webb views the organization as "training wheels" for the residents trying to embark on healthier lifestyles. The programs are resident-driven and designed to equip the residents with the knowledge and skills they need to live a sustainable lifestyle.

“This garden has helped me a lot with my health,” Dinkins said. “I’m able to eat the kale in the morning in smoothies, at lunchtime the Swiss chard can be put on a sandwich of tofu and fruit.”

While the gardens are at the forefront of activity for The D.C. Green Scheme during warm months, that isn’t the only activity they provide. They’ve held a “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse: Coat Drive," in which they donated 400 coats to a local women’s shelter. This winter they’ll focus on making sure residents know how to get produce and make healthy food choices using government resources.

“We're bringing a new approach, a new model to this environmental movement. We're in the neighborhoods and we're bringing everybody out,” Webb said with a smile.