Photo by Victoria St. Martin
A Conversation With Lauren Shweder Biel on Hunger and Nutrition
Lauren Shweder Biel, co-founder and executive director of DC Greens, connects communities with local, healthy foods. Her organization aims to bridge gaps in D.C.’s food system.
By Sam Mendelson Lauren Shweder Biel serves as a food educator, advocate and a link in a diverse D.C. food system. She discussed her work with DC Greens, explained how D.C. schools play a role in food security and where nutrition and hunger intersect.
DC Greens has made strides in transforming schools into food security sites. Shweder Biel points to a school garden market program, which will have 10 participating schools in May. Students build a farm stand at their schools with produce from their school gardens. And now each school has “a SNAP terminal so that they’re actually able to accept food stamps.” “It’s been a really exciting program because parents are coming at pickup time and they’re able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices right there.”
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have programs like the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program — that focus on access to healthy food — had so much success?
The DC Greens Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program allows doctors to give patients a “prescription” (the equivalent of money) to buy fruits and vegetables. The program is funded by Wholesome Wave, as a partnership between DC Greens, Wholesome Wave and Upper Cardozo Unity Health Clinic, according to The Washington Post. According to Shweder Biel, there were “three really big, exciting data points on that program.” More than half of enrolled patients saw a decrease in their Body Mass Index over the course of the program. There was an 85 percent increase in what are called “well-patient visits” (when patients see their doctors when they are not sick), and 78 percent of the prescriptions were redeemed at farmers’ markets.
You also serve on the Mayor’s Commission on Healthy Schools and Youth. How should the city government best respond to hunger in D.C.? Is it merely a matter of funding, or are there policy changes needed?
Shweder Biel points to a lot of “exciting progress” in a range of programs. What is needed next? For one, she said D.C. needs someone to coordinate across a number of agencies, such as a food policy director. She also sees D.C. as a potential partner on the prescription program. “We are going to be piloting a version of it with the city this season at the Minnesota Avenue Unity Clinic. So you know we are going to get some data and work through some of the logistics on using city funding to support this kind of a program,” Shweder Biel said. But the area needing more progress, she said, is in the area of urban agriculture. She calls this the “next frontier” for food security in D.C. There is a demand, she said, but “a lot of complicated regulatory red tape” needs to be addressed.
How do you perceive the intersection of hunger and nutrition in D.C.?
Shweder Biel said in the past there has been nationwide tension between the hunger and nutrition communities. Recently, as more attention has been placed on the importance of nutritious foods, she said she saw a “progressively closer relationship” between those two communities. Shweder Biel is concerned that the Farm Bill could jeopardize this partnership. “I have fears that the most recent Farm Bill really kind of put a wedge back between them.” Cuts to SNAP were accompanied by what Shweder Biel said is a “new batch of money that showed up to support nutrition incentives are [at] farmers’ markets.” However, she said that “if done intelligently, that those nutrition incentives really can be very much be in the service of the same goals that the hunger community has.”
DC Greens has grown considerably since 2009. What is next? Five years from now, what will be different about D.C.’s food system?
Note: DC Greens is currently in the middle of its own five-year strategic plan. New employment opportunities would certainly help, she said. And the farmers’ market bonus programs, as well as the prescription programs have been “amazing.” However, because of D.C.’s size, it lacks a traditional local farm economy. That is where urban agriculture can come in. It is not entirely certain what the D.C. food landscape five years from now will look like. Shweder Biel is comfortable with that uncertainty. “We really try to stay nimble and responsive,” she said, “And so I think it’s hard to predict in some ways, and we want to keep it that way.”