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.