The Harsh Reality Of Food Insecurity

Millions of people in the United States struggle with food insecurity each day. In Washington, D.C., the problem of food insecurity is exacerbated by food deserts that encapsulate areas of the city where residents with the lowest incomes reside. The problem is severe — but some people are working to bring food to those who aren’t sure about their next meal.


No — there’s a difference between hunger and food insecurity. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Hunger is an “an individual-level physiological condition” that can be a result of food insecurity.

Food desert” is a phrase used to describe an area where healthy, fresh foods like fruits and vegetables are very difficult to come by. Food deserts are usually found in impoverished areas, where there may be a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.

According to the USDA, at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store  to qualify as a “low-access community” in an urban area like Washington, D.C. Wards 7 and 8 in the District are home to large food deserts.


While food insecurity is prevalent in certain parts of Washington, D.C., the problem is not unique to the District. A report from the USDA found 14 percent — or 17.4 million households in the United States — were food insecure in 2014. Of those households, 3.7 million were homes to children. Below, a map outlining the states where the prevalence of food insecurity was significantly higher than the national average in 2014:

Mapchart/Paige Lavender

Data taken from USDA (Mapchart/Paige Lavender)

Rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average for certain groups, including…

• All households with children
• Households with children under 6
• Single-parent households
• Households headed by minorities
• Low-income households
• Households in the South



For the many people in the District affected by food insecurity, there is help. Some are working to provide healthy foods in areas where grocery stores are scarce while others are hoping to educate people about the benefits of a healthy, diverse diet.

Here are the stories of those who are working to fight food insecurity:

Marie Breslin

Marie Breslin (Photo by Paige Lavender)

In her 13 years volunteering at Martha’s Table, Marie Breslin has been inspired by the kindness of those who seek help finding their next meal.

“People don’t just take because it’s free. I am struck with that day in and day out,” Breslin said. “They will say, ‘No honey, hold on to that, I’ve got plenty of those at home, leave that for somebody else.’ So this notion that the poor just want a free handout of everything and they don’t consider their needs or the needs of others is just bull.”

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Breslin started volunteering after leaving her job at Verizon in 2003, first doing two days a week and working her way up to four days of volunteer work after her son started high school.

“I’m just not the kind of person that sits around,” Breslin said. “I wanted to find something else that would occupy several days a week that was consistent with how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.”

“You do what you need to do to try to make life easier on people who don’t have it easy. And I do have it easy, as far as I’m concerned,” Breslin added.

The 63-year-old has worked to improve the food distribution at Martha’s Table, helping to incorporate healthy foods and making sure no food is wasted. She helped change the food pantry run by Martha’s Table on 14th street — an operation she said once “looked like 1929” with people lining up down the street for a full day to wait on a bag of groceries — to a more personalized process. She’s seen and heard how this has improved the lives of many customers, but one woman who stopped in for food three years ago truly left a mark on Breslin.

“This one woman had been sitting in the lobby watching me the whole time, and when it finally came to be her turn, she came to the doorway and just stopped dead, gave me the greatest smile ever and she said, ‘This is the only place I can go to when I’m desperate for food and leave with my dignity in tact,’” Breslin said. “That’s exactly what we hope for. We’re all about maintaining their dignity, respect…we don’t question people.”

Breslin, who said she “bought into the mission long before the mission was put down on paper,” said she’d welcome anyone who wants to provide food for those that may not know where their next meal is coming from.

“To those who much has been given much is expected,” Breslin said. “I think it would be a really wonderful world if more people lived by those words and realized how grateful they ought to be for where they are.”

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Bonita Cacho
Bonita Cacho (Photo by Paige Lavender)

Bonita Cacho (Photo by Paige Lavender)

Bonita Cacho, a D.C. resident who says she’s “more than half a century” old, always makes sure to have at least three things in her kitchen: eggs, potatoes and flour. But Cacho, who doesn’t eat meat, works to incorporate healthy, fresh foods into her weekly meals for the sake of her niece and nephew, who are still in elementary school and learning how to maintain a healthy diet.

“They stay with me sometimes, and they say, ‘We eat good, because we eat fresh food, we don’t eat carry out, we eat fresh food,’ and I say, ‘That’s right,’” Cacho said.

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Cacho recently received fresh fruits, vegetables and canned goods at a Martha’s Table Joyful Market at Savoy Elementary with her niece and nephew. She planned to use all the foods to teach the kids how to eat a variety of healthy dishes.

“Seriously, I think this is fabulous,” Cacho said of the Joyful Market, which comes to the school once a month. “They’ll eat whatever you eat, and most of the time if they see what I have on my plate, they’ll want some of it.”

Cacho strives to teach her niece and nephew about diversity through food, encouraging them to try things from different cultures. She’s introduced them to all kinds of foods, from peanut butter and celery to Fufu, a traditional meal served in Africa and the Caribbean.

“I tell them like my mother told me: you never know where you’ll be in life, and if you’re out of the country, you have to eat what people serve you, or at least try it for good manners,” she said. “She used to tell us, ‘Educate your taste buds.’”

Cacho doesn’t want the kids to turn away from a dish because it’s different than what they’re used to, especially if there are health benefits to eating the unfamiliar food.

“[It’s important] they don’t turn their nose up and say, ‘Eww.’ I got them out of that habit,” she said. “It’s not ‘Eww,’ you just don’t know, you have to try it.”

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Dillon Babington
Dillon Babington (Photo by Paige Lavender)

Dillon Babington (Photo by Paige Lavender)

For Dillon Babington, food is “a gateway, a launching point for so many other things.”

Babington, 32, is a Grocery Market Leader for Martha’s Table, working to bring fruits and vegetables to schools in areas of D.C. where people may have limited access to healthy foods. Babington wants to empower kids to make positive choices when they eat.

“Being able to teach kids to have ownership over their own bodies is really important” she said.

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Babington believes educating kids about the negative effects of unhealthy foods like soda and candy will give them confidence to make smart choices about sex, drugs and other societal pressures as teens.

“It’s a good means to start talking about having autonomy over your body in other regards as you get older,” she said.

Babington said being able to try new foods and experiment with recipes is “a luxury,” but making sure people have access to healthy foods on a regular basis is in the interest of everyone. She cited studies that show children who are obese are more likely to become obese adults. That can lead to a host of health problems, with some so severe that people are unable to workjoin the military or contribute to society in other ways.

“This truly is an epidemic,” Babington said. “It’s terrifying, and it’s sad, and it’s preventable, and thats the most frustrating piece of this… This is people not investing in children.”

“There’s a lot of inequities and injustice and a lot of people that just need assistance really, and support,” she added.

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 Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson (Photo provided by Johnson)

As the Instructional Coach at Savoy Elementary School in Southeast D.C., Jennifer Johnson observes how poor food choices can affect students’ work. The 47-year-old helped bring healthy foods to the school through Martha’s Table’s Joyful Markets program, and said she’s received positive feedback from both students and parents who may not normally have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“A lot of our students come hungry, so we figured they must not be eating at night,” Johnson said.

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Johnson said she’s seen students arrive at Savoy Elementary with two-liters of soda and full-sized bags of unhealthy snack foods.

“They’re eating them on the way to school, they’re eating them in the cafeteria in the morning, so much so that we had to ban those snacks,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the faculty at the school recognizes not all kids have healthy foods at home, noting that some families who send their kids to Savoy buy groceries using SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. By banning snack foods and providing a market with free, healthy foods once a month, Johnson hopes students’ performance in class will improve.

“Hopefully we’ll see better results [on our assessments],” she said.

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A lack of grocery stores contributes to food insecurity experienced by residents of Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, not much is being done to take care of this part of the problem.

Walmart recently scrapped plans to open two stores in the District, and plans for other grocery stores are largely based to the west of the Anacostia River.

To read up on plans for new grocery stores in D.C., check out the map below:

(Grocery store data from the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership)



What To Do

• Volunteer
• Donate needed food
• Give money
• Raise awareness


How Joyful Markets Are Feeding Kids And Teaching Lessons


More than 20 people clad in clean aprons stood quietly in an elementary school gym in Southeast D.C., surrounded by boxes and bags of both canned and fresh groceries. They listened intently as they received their instructions.

“Please break down the boxes as much as possible. With produce, if you wouldn’t buy it, please do not give it out. Weigh the produce out to about one pound.”

After that was out of the way, the fun started.

“Everybody high-five two people next to you,” said Dillon Babington, a Grocery Market Leader for Martha’s Table, an organization that helps provide food, clothing and educational help to those that need it in Washington, D.C.

On March 3, Babington and a handful of other Martha’s Table employees worked with a group of volunteers to host Turner Elementary School’s first Joyful Market, part of the organization’s Healthy Markets program. All students who attend the school in Southeast D.C. were invited to come “shop” with their families in the gym, gathering up approximately 23 pounds of free food given by Martha’s Table and the Capital Area Food Bank that can be used to make up to 18 meals.


Turner is one of eight new schools from Wards 7 and 8 — which have the District’s highest poverty rates according to the advocacy group D.C. Hunger Solutions — to host Joyful Markets in March. Twenty-two other markets were previously open in elementary schools and community centers around D.C., providing food for more than 3,500 people in the month of January. Martha’s Table hopes the markets will encourage healthy eating in an area where fruits and vegetables aren’t always available.

“When do you get to meet with 100, or 200, or 300 kids and smile with them and talk about carrots?” Babington said.

More than 50 percent of D.C.’s kids under 18 live in Wards 7 and 8, according to a 2014 report from DC Action for Children. Food insecurity in the area east of the Anacostia River is amplified due to a lack of grocery stores.

According to the D.C. government, only three grocery stores exist in Wards 7 and 8. Families that live there have average household incomes of $39,000 per year and $29,000 per year, respectively, according to a 2010 report from D.C Hunger Solutions. There are 11 grocery stores in Ward 3, which is comprised of part the Northwest quadrant that borders Virginia and has an average household income of $128,000 per year.

Efforts to improve the grocery store situation have crumbled in recent months, with Wal-Mart dropping plans to build two stores in Ward 7.


Norita Marshall shopped with her granddaughter at the Turner market on Thursday, exclaiming before she even stepped foot through the door.

“This is nice! This is beautiful!”

She made her way around the market, passing a table filled with whole wheat pasta, tomato sauce and beans; baskets of oranges, bananas and apples; and a large spread of carrots, potatoes, broccoli, celery and the “Joyful Food of the Month” — zucchini.

“Broccoli? This is so cool. Fresh, fresh produce,” Marshall said.

Marshall couldn’t ignore the tantalizing smell of garlic filling every corner of the gym. She finally stopped by a table with an electric skillet and some small cups of whole wheat pasta with zucchini and tomato sauce, prepared by Rob Patterson and Joel “Chef Jojo” Thomas, culinary employees of Martha’s Table.

“Healthy, nutritious and delicious” is how Patterson described the dish, which he said helped get kids “excited to go home with fresh food.”

Norita Marshall walks with her granddaughter after visiting a station at the Turner Elementary Joyful Market. (Photo by Paige Lavender)

Norita Marshall walks with her granddaughter after visiting a station at the Turner Elementary Joyful Market. (Photo by Paige Lavender)

“Oh, I have to try this. I can take one?” Marshall said. “In Jesus name, Amen! I gotta bless it!”

She took a bite (“It’s tasty!”) and asked a volunteer to drop another piece of zucchini into her cup. Marshall acknowledged that it’s hard for people in her ward to find fresh food with so few places to shop, saying she was “pleasantly surprised” by what Martha’s Table had to offer.

“We know that this is one of the wards where there are a lot of people who go hungry, so this is an opportunity to put fresh produce, healthy food in someone’s pantry,” Marshall said. “I think it will be well-received.”


Martha’s Table doesn’t just aim to provide much-needed food — the focus on fun extends beyond the market’s volunteers, aimed at the customers themselves. There’s an emphasis on the visual presentation of the market’s produce, with some volunteers shoveling vegetables into attractive wicker baskets while others take the vegetables out of the baskets to place into customers’ bags.

“When you’re not helping someone, please stand behind the table so they can see everything,” Babington told the volunteers.

She said the markets are “a piece of that puzzle” in bringing families together for “quality time and quality food.”

“We want to serve with dignity and compassion,” Babington said.

The chefs take extra care to make sure the kids are enjoying the market. Patterson mostly leaves Thomas to man the electric skillet so he can engage with the pint-sized shoppers. He often jumps around with kids in the middle of the gym, and occasionally tends a table where kids are learning to make zucchini ribbons in a vinaigrette dressing.

“Uh oh!” he gasped as the ribbon made by Marshall’s granddaughter broke apart. She giggled, eyes wide.

When Patterson does join Thomas, they both bounce to the beats of Beyoncé and Ariana Grande blasting through the gym’s speakers. They encourage the kids to get louder than the music.

“Alright on the count of three!” Chef Jojo said to a group of kids. “One, two, three…”

“Zucchini!” the kids all screamed, giggling and grabbing cups of the pasta.


Babington said the markets are a learning experience for Martha’s Table, which conducted research at the Turner market to see what the biggest needs are in the community.

“We are trying to expand [the program] smartly,” Babington said, noting Martha’s Table wants to open even more markets in the future.

“There’s just as equally big an emphasis and effort on doing it smart and doing it right,” Babington said.

A full schedule for the Healthy Markets program can be found at Martha’s Table’s website.

McKenna’s Wagon Volunteer Brings Warmth During Chilly Weather


A man donning several worn jackets and a thick knit cap hunched over the handlebars of his bike to peek inside the back of a white van.

His shaking hand held a cardboard container of beans and rice, still steaming after being scooped out of a large metal pan resting on a plastic fold-out table. He lifted the box to his nose, taking a deep breath before letting out an “mmm.”

“Do you have any more?”

“We have some in another tray,” Arielle Melcher told him as she whipped open one of two red containers containing more of the Mexican-inspired dish. As she piled food into a second container, the man gingerly closed up the first box, settling it neatly into the basket of his bike.

Arielle Melcher stands ready to serve a hot meal of beans and rice to anyone that stops by McKenna's Wagon. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Arielle Melcher stands ready to serve a hot meal of beans and rice to anyone that stops by McKenna’s Wagon. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Melcher is a regular volunteer for Martha’s Table, an organization that helps provide food, clothing and educational help to those that need it in Washington, D.C. On this chilly night in February, Melcher was helping with McKenna’s Wagon, the mobile food truck that leaves Martha’s table 365 days a year to take food to the hungry around the city.

The truck “went out during the snowstorm while you couldn’t even see,” Jon Squicciarini, Development Associate at Martha’s Table, said of McKenna’s Wagon.

Now a 17-year-old senior at The Academy of the Holy Cross, Melcher initially started volunteering at Martha’s Outfitters thrift store to earn service hours for school. Melcher, whose black leggings tuck into mismatched socks and green Doc Martens, called that job “mind-numbingly boring,” noting her preference for McKenna’s Wagon.

Melcher was one of 16,000 Martha’s Table volunteers in 2015, according to Francisca Alba, the organization’s Assistant Director of Volunteer Engagement. Alba said McKenna’s Wagon is usually set on help, but there’s “desperate need” for volunteers elsewhere, like with the organization’s Healthy Markets initiative.

Melcher normally helps with McKenna’s Wagon on Mondays, but missed this week because she’d been away visiting the University of Maine, a school “in the middle of nowhere” she hopes to attend after graduating. After another volunteer canceled due to snowy weather, Alba had texted Melcher — who’s completed 225 hours of community service on McKenna’s Wagon alone — to work.

“I was not like that in high school,” Alba said with a chuckle.

Melcher, after arriving at Martha’s Table’s 14th Street headquarters and throwing a green apron adorned with the organization’s logo on over her green army jacket, hopped into a van with Lou Boero, who’s been volunteering at Martha’s Table on-and-off for the last 25 years.

Boero, who works in financial planning but calls himself “80 percent retired,” always drives on Tuesdays. He knows the route to the truck’s first stop by the World Bank so well that as he drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House growing bigger by the second, he can’t seem to remember exactly where he’s going.

“I’ve done this for so many years I can’t tell you the cross streets,” Boero said, finally recalling his destination at 20th and Pennsylvania NW.

As they weave their way to their first stop, Melcher readied grocery bags to be filled with fruit and sandwiches.

“Sounds like you’d like to do the hot. Would you like to do the hot?” Boero said, giving Melcher the option of dishing out the warm meal.

“Sure,” Melcher replied as she straightened out more plastic grocery bags and took inventory of the food: meat sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, beans and rice, water and tea.

The operation is quick, aided at the first stop by Lance, a man who lives in a tent nearby. Lance helped ready the bags of sandwiches while Melcher and Boero set up two tables, one for the hot food and one for tea and water.

Lou Boero gathers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to the hungry at McPherson Square. (Paige Lavender/American University)

Lou Boero gathers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to the hungry at McPherson Square. (Paige Lavender/American University)

“Thank you! God bless you! For those of you in school, keep your grades up! Keep praying! Have a blessed day!” Lance shouted at anyone who passed by, whether by foot, bike or car.

“First time, first time,” a man murmured as he walked up to Melcher’s station, a sharp contrast to Lance’s bombastic personality. He quietly thanked Melcher after receiving a container of the beans and rice, making his way to Boero to get sandwiches he could save for later.

“No meat?” another man said. “Nah. If there’s no meat in it, I don’t want it.”

After seeing another man scrunch his face up at the sight of carrots, Melcher delicately moved her metal spoon through the Mexican mixture, serving up two containers of food with slightly less orange. She made small talk with another man who inquired if the blue streaks in her hair had been dyed with product bought at CVS.

McKenna's Wagon sits at 15th and K NW, a short walk from the White House.

McKenna’s Wagon sits at 15th and K NW, a short walk from the White House.

After about 30 minutes and 20 people served, Melcher and Boero packed up the van and drove over to McPherson Square for their second and final stop at the night. Again they readied their spread, this time serving almost 40 people at a spot just three minutes from the White House.

By the end of the hour, the air had cooled considerably, and so had the food. Melcher scraped the last bits out of her metal bin, which was now sitting in the bed of the truck, ready to be packed up.

The emptiness of the containers echoed through McKenna’s Wagon as it made its way back to 14th Street, the low whoosh of liquids rocking back and forth and a hollow banging filling the vehicle.

Melcher didn’t look back on the night, only forward. She’d be back again, serving those same familiar faces and many new ones, likely on her usual Mondays.

For information on how to volunteer at Martha’s Table, go here.

Marie Danielson-Young, an adjunct professor at Towson University, examines an art instillation in the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

‘Wonder’ in the Wednesday Lunch Hour


Just by the White House amid the business of downtown Washington, D.C. sits an oasis of quiet, curiosity and color.

Inside the large golden doors of the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that sits on the corner of 17th street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW, spectators can explore “Wonder,” an exhibition that features what the museum calls “immersive artwork.”

The museum is a quiet refuge next to the bustling 17th street, which is regularly occupied by Secret Service officers, office workers, tourists and more. On a recent Wednesday afternoon in January, a steady stream of patrons entered the museum, working their way out of heavy coats and scarves, turning to hushed voices as they made their way around the installations on the first floor of the building.

The din of the busy street outside disappeared after stepping into the Sheila Duignan Gallery, which is currently filled with 11 small mountain-like structures as part of the “Wonder” exhibition. The sound of winter coats swishing against themselves stands out amid the tapping of heels and boots on the wooden floor, the occasional click of an iPhone camera or DSLR, and the excited voices of patrons spending lunch hour soaking up art.

Marie Danielson-Young, an adjunct professor at Towson University, tucked herself into a corner of the room, taking a moment to dig her phone out of her purse and snap a photograph of a placard featuring an Albert Einstein quote. She traveled to D.C. to satisfy her own curiosity about “Wonder,” but said she would encourage those in her class on “Art and the Human Body” to check out the exhibit.

“This particular show is not exactly for my class, it’s more my own interests,” Danielson-Young said. “But I think art in general is very interesting and important for the students because a lot of the students I have might be first-generation college-bound, and many of them have never been to an art museum.”

Marie Danielson-Young, an adjunct professor at Towson University, examines an art instillation in the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Marie Danielson-Young, an adjunct professor at Towson University, examines an art instillation in the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the most noticeable patrons of the Renwick on this Wednesday were children, who spoke in awed, excited whispers. Most tiptoed as close as possible to each piece of artwork without touching anything, occasionally stealing glances at the museum security guard, wondering how far they could bend the rules.

“Oh my gosh, how about that?” one mother said to her children as they shuffled their feet closer to the creations in the Sheila Duignan Gallery to get a peak at the office supplies making up the stalagmite-like objects.

“Turn around. Ready?” another mother said as she shuffled her children together, snapping a photo of them in front of the masses made of white and off-white index cards that were all too similar to the leftovers from one of the biggest blizzards D.C. has ever seen. “It kind of looks like the snow.”

Patrons observe a rainbow installation from artist Gabriel Dawe at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Patrons observe a rainbow installation from artist Gabriel Dawe at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

One room over, Abby Cruikshank examined a rainbow installation with her kids, Owen and Charlotte.

“No, it’s not moving, we are moving,” Cruikshank said as her son twisted his body around to take in different angles of the multicolored wave, made up of around 60 miles of thread cascading from the ceiling.

Charlotte, the self-proclaimed artist of the family, shared a moment of reflection with her mother, recalling how she had recently made her own art out of seemingly ordinary objects.

“It’s a little like this, isn’t it?” Cruikshank said.

“Different materials,” Charlotte replied matter-of-factly.

Cruikshank said bringing her children to see “Wonder” was more than just an emotional experience.

“We were running around in that room back there and Charlotte said, ‘I feel like I’m inside nature,'” Cruikshank said. “She was spinning and twirling, and I just think that’s exciting to just give them that physical feeling of what art makes you feel like.”

Falling For Onyx


Emily Doran did not expect to fall for Onyx.

The two only met in May, and even that was by chance. Doran had planned to foster a dog from the Washington Humane Society, and when the dog they had reserved for her suddenly became unavailable, she was left with 4-year-old Onyx.

Immediately, Doran began working to find Onyx a home. She created an Instagram page where she posted photos and described his personality. She introduced him to people in her neighborhood and name-dropped him in conversations with people she knew who might be looking for a pet. She used different training techniques to get him to calm down on walks.


A photo posted by Hi I’m Onyx! (@onyx_the_man) on

But over time, Doran’s gotten used to Onyx being by her side. She rarely posts photos to his Instagram account anymore, and she’s starting to worry about what might happen if someone else adopted him.

“I’m dreading the moment,” she said in a recent interview when asked what she’ll do if someone chooses to adopt him.

To see more on Doran and Onyx’s relationship, watch the video above.

Washington Humane Society Resources





Single Photos — Visual Storytelling I


Light vs. Darkness

Emergency vehicles sit on a blocked-off street next to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on March 25, 2015. Crowds flocked to the Verizon Center that night for a game in which the Washington Wizards narrowly lost to the Indiana Pacers.

Emergency vehicles sit on a blocked-off street next to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on March 25, 2015. Crowds flocked to the Verizon Center that night for a game in which the Washington Wizards narrowly lost to the Indiana Pacers.


A security guard watches the Washington Wizards game against the Indiana Pacers on a television inside a gift shop at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Multiple Planes (Framing)

A man watches an entrance to the Verizon Center as commuters and runners go past on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, ahead of a game between the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers.

A man watches an entrance to the Verizon Center as commuters and runners go past on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, ahead of a game between the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers.

Environmental Portrait (Rule of Thirds)

Hoping to sell Wizards hats like the one on his head, a man who wished to remain unidentified waits as crowds -- including attendees of the March 25, 2015, Wizard's game -- exit a Metro station near the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Hoping to sell Wizards hats like the one on his head, a man who wished to remain unidentified waits as crowds — including attendees of the March 25, 2015, Wizard’s game — exit a Metro station near the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Depth of Field — Shallow

Patrons can be seen through a window of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., making their way to their seats with drinks and snacks ahead of a basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Indiana Pacers.

Patrons can be seen through a window of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., making their way to their seats with drinks and snacks ahead of a basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Indiana Pacers.

Depth of Field — Deep

A street performer drums on buckets outside of the Verizon Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

A street performer drums on buckets outside of the Verizon Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Fitness Movement Builds Strength, Community


A sustainable workout movement aims to promote health in mind, body and community.

Three people began pumping their legs and shoulders after hearing a command to “start with bicycles” on a recent Saturday morning. They huffed their way through the reps, breathing cool December air while wriggling on a chilly sidewalk.

Bundled up patrons leaving a nearby Starbucks passed the group, nodding. A woman pushed a buggy past. People with shopping bags made their way toward a grocery store on the opposite side of a busy intersection. A fire truck roared past, forcing a pause in conversation.

Trainer Chikaro “Karo” Martin wrapped up the one-hour sidewalk workout, which took place in Northeast Washington, D.C.

Martin, 34, is a health consultant who started Know Your Fitness, a sustainable workout movement that promotes both fitness and community building in Washington. The project, which finished a trial run on Dec. 6, brings together fitness professionals and community members once a week for a workout in a public space.

“You have an opportunity not only to connect with the individuals within your neighborhood by identifying each person’s strength and weakness,” Martin said in a recent interview. “You have an opportunity to kind of encourage one another through a dynamic workout.”

Instagram video via Know Your Fitness

Greg Terryn, who first heard about the workouts during a training session with Martin at his Northeast Washington apartment complex, said he attends the Saturday classes for both the challenging workouts and the people.

“When you start to know the group that comes, you kind of hold each other all accountable, like, ‘oh, I won’t get to see all my friends this weekend if I don’t do that,’” Terryn, 22, said after a recent workout. “It becomes this thing where you get out of bed to meet up with everyone else.”

All photos by Paige Lavender

Darin Allen, 28, has attended “five or six” workouts, drawn by their intensity and the fact that they’re outdoors. The biggest appeal for Allen, though, is the cost.

“It’s free!” Allen, who lives in Southeast Washington, said in an interview. “Gym memberships in D.C. are like $100 a month. The least you could do is come and treat yourself to a free workout on Saturdays.”

Martin said the first phase of Know Your Fitness was made possible entirely by volunteers. Martin helped teach kids at the Latin American Youth Center how to run Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, and they now contribute to Know Your Fitness’ social media — the primary form of advertising for the program. A recent college graduate created the program’s website.

Now, Martin’s exploring ways to finance Know Your Fitness in the future.

“We’re definitely going to need some dollars,” Martin said.


The workouts consist of two sessions: 30 minutes of functional movements or dynamic stretching, followed by 30 minutes of more intense drills, sometimes involving weights and often done with a partner.

Each session is designed to appeal to people of all fitness levels. Beginners are encouraged to participate in team-oriented drills with more experienced participants, but they can opt out if a workout gets too hard.


Meet Karo Martin

After growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martin attended Ball State University, where he played football and double majored in sports psychology and American literature. But despite his athletic past, it was a brief stint working in banking that led him to a career in fitness.

“The corporate environment, the people are cool, it was just, I didn’t really see how I could make an impact with individuals, and I like to see those impacts,” Martin said.

As a health consultant, Martin has racked up an impressive resume, founding a fitness company called Project Fitness and serving as a consultant for the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan.

Martin, who has held many jobs in the fitness industry, said he was one of “a collective group of individuals” who came up with the concept for Know Your Fitness two years ago, but the idea was slow to get off the ground. The program finally launched on May 15, 2014.

The trend of pop-up workouts is booming in the Washington metropolitan area, which was rated America’s fittest urban center in 2014 by the American Fitness Index. Meaghan Stakelin, creator of the blog The Fit Crasher, called the trend a “national phenomenon” in the world of fitness.

“There are just more of these popping up every day,” Stakelin said.

Stakelin said the “grassroots fitness movement” is also popping up in other cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York.


Martin is attempting to establish Know Your Fitness partnerships, including a potential event with Metropolitan Police Department. Martin said the MPD has expressed interest in using Know Your Fitness as a way to connect with community members.

In light of recent protests over police brutality and race relations stemming from the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Martin said he feels it’s especially important for the community and law enforcement to interact in a positive way.

“I am an African-American male, I have had some bad experiences [with law enforcement],” Martin said.

Martin thinks Know Your Fitness is a way to foster relationships — including the one between community and law enforcement — to create lasting change.

“It’s part of the broader mission [of the project],” Martin said.


Visit Know Your Fitness

Mandy Jenkins Talks Social Media


Mandy Jenkins (@mjenkins), open news editor at Storyful, spoke to the Writing for Convergent Media class at American University on Saturday about social media. See live coverage of her talk below:


Live Blog Mandy Jenkins Talk

‘Organized Chaos’ Produces Thanksgiving ‘Blessing’


Hundreds of people gathered at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to participate in “organized chaos.”

At least that’s how many who were present described the scene, in which 1,200 boxes were being stuffed with fruit, meat and vegetables. The hectic gathering was part of the 20th annual Thanksgiving food distribution hosted by Project GiveBack, a nonprofit group based in Washington. The event brings hundreds of people together to assemble boxes of food that are given to families who need help putting Thanksgiving dinner on the table.


Each box contains an entire Thanksgiving spread: a whole turkey, ground turkey, bacon, fish filets, chicken thighs, potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, elbow macaroni, onions, apples, green peppers, oranges and sweet potato pie. Two types of boxes are put together — small boxes, meant to feed a family of four or less, and large boxes, meant to feed more than four people.

Project GiveBack raises the money for all that food with the help of corporate sponsors and donations. Ransom Miller, founder of the nonprofit, said 55 percent of donations for the event came from individuals giving $100 or less.

Miller, 44, works for a mortgage company full-time but said growing up in a house that emphasized community service fueled his desire to regularly give back to his community. He said Project GiveBack started as a simple collection of money at his workplace that ended up providing Thanksgiving dinner for six families.

This year, 1,500 families total will benefit from Project GiveBack’s work; the event in Washington, produced 1,200 boxes, while a separate event in Northern Virginia produced 300 boxes.


It’s no simple task getting 1,200 Thanksgiving dinners stuffed into boxes and shipped out to homes in just one day.

The process begins with a pep talk led by Miller and his wife, Hardisha. The two spoke to an audience of hundreds packed into an auditorium early Saturday, thanking them for sacrificing their time early on a weekend morning.

In an interview Saturday, Miller said the board of directors at Project GiveBack works to cater events to those who may not have a lot of time to volunteer.

“I’m not going to ask you to come every Saturday, I’m not going to ask you to give up a lot of your time,” Miller said. “One time a year I’m gonna ask you to come out and do a few hours to help the community.”

Miller said much of the volunteer base for Project GiveBack is made up of community service groups, like student organizations from Howard University and Jack and Jill, a family organization that provides cultural, educational and civic activities for children.

Dorri Robertson, 56, lives in California but spent Saturday volunteering at Project GiveBack’s event with her daughter who lives in Washington. Robertson said she’s doing a 30-day challenge this November showing and telling people how thankful she is, and she showed up on Saturday as part of that challenge.

“I’m blessed to be a blessing,” Robertson said in an interview Saturday.

Information about Project GiveBack reached Shauna Brown, 42, by word-of-mouth.

“This kind of fell into my lap,” Brown said while delivering boxes on Saturday.

Brown, a clinical development liaison for a pharmaceutical company who lives in Northeast Washington, was touched after delivering just one box on Saturday.

“I’m going to go home and reflect on all of this, how fortunate I am,” Brown said. “This reminds me that we always just need to be thankful for what we have.”


The real reason for all this “organized chaos” is the giving, and the impact each box of food makes on family. Many volunteers at Saturday’s event said they would only participate if they could be a driver, because to see the looks on the faces of those who get boxes — the surprise, the joy and even the tears — made all the heavy-lifting, fundraising and invested time worth it.

Charmel Hamiel, a single mother of four children who lives in Southwest Washington, was one such recipient of a Project GiveBack box on Saturday. She found out about the program through the not-for-profit mental health agency Community Connections, which submitted an application to Project GiveBack on her behalf. She said the program is especially beneficial for her since she doesn’t drive, and Project GiveBack brings the food to your door.

“I think it’s a beautiful program, wonderful,” Hamiel said in an interview at her home Saturday.

Ruby Flourney, 73, choked up when she received her box at her home in Southwest D.C. on Saturday. She said it was a surprise, and described the moment she found out she’d be receiving a box of Thanksgiving food.

“I said, ‘I’m not even going to go through all of this question-asking, whatever, I’m gonna say yes,'” Flourney laughed.

Flourney said she hopes to volunteer with Project GiveBack in the future, saying giving back is her ministry. She said she received much needed assistance when she first joined her church in 1995, and since then she’s volunteered with the church as a way to pay it forward.

“I was down, I was down, down, down,” Flourney said. “I was raising my 13-year-old granddaughter and I was really struggling, I just came from Massachusetts with my dying aunt, and I was homeless, so I started going to the food banks and I found out I could go to more than one food bank at a time. I got so overloaded with food, I started giving back.”

“This is a blessing for me, for somebody to give me something,” Florney said.


For more information on Project GiveBack visit the organization website at

All photos, video and reporting by Paige Lavender.

‘Newsgames’ Tell Stories Through Systems


“Newsgames,” the term for video games that tell news stories, hasn’t yet made it into the lexicon of journalism.

But if you ask Dillon Wilson, a pre-school teacher from Seattle who spent over a year as an editor for the video game blog Pxlbye, there’s one major reason newsgames could soon be considered an integral part of the mainstream media.

“Money talks,” Wilson, 26, said in a phone interview Thursday, noting that video games are rapidly growing into a multi-billion dollar industry that’s appealing to people of all ages.

Crosswords offered a way for people to get into the news through games even before modern technology existed, Dr. Ian Bogost said. (Photo by Flickr user clearrants, used under a Creative Commons license)

Crosswords offered a way for people to get into the news through games even before modern technology existed, Dr. Ian Bogost said. (Photo by Flickr user clearrants, used under a Creative Commons license)

“The Wii is in every old folks’ home from here to wherever,” Wilson said.

According to a 2013 report from the Entertainment Software Association, 58 percent of Americans play video games, and the average number of years gamers have been playing is 13.

Dr. Ian Bogost, a professor and the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, has tried to learn more about that potential audience while studying how video games can be used in storytelling. Bogost literally wrote the book on the topic — Newsgames: Journalism at Play — along with GIT doctoral students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer.

Bogost, 37, started out as a game developer, producing newsgames for a variety of media outlets from 2006 to 2009.

“Games are good at depicting systems. The world is made up of lots of interconnected, complex systems that are more interconnected and more complex than ever before, and so there’s the potential to understand that world better through games and software than though traditional storytelling.”
— Dr. Ian Bogost

He created a game called “Points of Entry” for The New York Times in 2007, providing the audience with a different medium for learning about the immigration reform bill introduced that year by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Ma., and John McCain, R-Ariz. In a phone interview Tuesday, Bogost recalled that most of the traditional media coverage of the McCain-Kennedy bill told stories of how “the hypothetical individual” would be affected by immigration reform.

A screenshot from "Points of Entry," a newsgame created by Dr. Ian Bogost for The New York Times in 2007. (Photo via Persuasive Games, used with permission from Dr. Bogost)

A screenshot from “Points of Entry,” a newsgame created by Dr. Ian Bogost for The New York Times in 2007. (Photo via Persuasive Games, used with permission from Dr. Bogost)

“What was lost in that coverage was a sense of, okay, well that’s one individual, how does the system work as a whole? What is the kind of logic of this proposed legislation do to the composition of future immigration?” Bogost said, noting the game he created allowed players to consider “not just one or two, but dozens and dozens of these hypothetical immigrant situations.”

But the immigration game was a rare opportunity for Bogost, who said he was turned down even when offering newsgames as a “zero-dollar investment” for news organizations who had “anxiety” about the projects.

“It was really painful,” Bogost said. “We put a lot of sweat and risk into these projects… that didn’t end up panning out.”

Bogost said his book and the rise of newsgames happened at the height of the financial crisis, which he thinks hindered the growth of the genre.

“News organizations have been so strapped and kind of so desperate just to get by, the idea of like, spending money on making video games is just insane,” Bogost said.

Interactive art director Jeff Soyk, 31, has explored explored non-traditional storytelling through Hollow, an interactive documentary. While not a video game, Hollow allows the user to control the pace and direction of the story by creating different avenues of storytelling within one project.

Soyk, who lives in Somerville, Mass., said monetizing content that’s interactive and non-traditional is an “ongoing discussion” in not just the journalism industry, but also the design and development industry.

“No one really has landed on a good solution for that just yet,” Soyk said, noting it’s hard to merge traditional storytelling teams with interactive teams to work on projects and that merge can often inflate budgets.

Soyk said he prefers to find work as a freelancer, juggling such job titles as creative director, user interface (UI) designer, user experience (UX) designer, and more. Bogost, however, turned to research, penning his book and breaking down what newsgames can offer that more traditional forms of media, like print or broadcast, cannot.

Still, Bogost thinks the invention of new outlets for offering consumers news and digital goods could give hope to newsgames as a revenue source.

“Today, there are many, many, many channels for the distribution of digital goods, including games, and those didn’t exist even five years ago,” Bogost said, citing things like the App Store on iTunes and the digital game store Steam.”

Bogost said newsgames could be a revenue source as much as they could be an investment to produce.

“But this is not anything that, to my knowledge, anyone in the news industry has kind of realized and taken up,” Bogost said.