AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor Micha Green (top left) and NBC News Anchor Jummy Olabanji (second row center) with panelists, Rahsaan Bernard, Council member Mary Cheh, Dr. Beverly Wheeler, Jillian Griffith and Ja’Sent Brown. (Screenshot)

By Nyame-Kye Kondo
Special to the AFRO

On Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Xi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, held a webinar and virtual panel on food insecurity and inequities in the District of Columbia. The webinar was moderated by Xi Omega member and NBC News anchor Jummy Olabanji Sands, and the panel was moderated by Xi Omega member and AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor Micha Green.  The panel featured Council member Mary Cheh (D- Ward 3); Director of DC Hunger Solutions Dr. Beverly R. Wheeler, Ed.; President and CEO of Building Bridges Across the River Rahsaan Bernard; Registered Dietician and Community Partnerships Developer for Amazon Jillian Griffith; and D.C. Central Kitchen’s Chief Impact Officer and Xi Omega member Ja’Sent Brown.

As the panelists represented various organizations, each had similar goals in mind, which was made evident by the head nods in agreement when Bernard said he works to: “reduce the barrier of social and economic mobility for residents East of the River,” or when he emphasized the importance of “creating a realm of discretion so that dignity can be maintained” when residents utilize services. The overall agreement amongst the panelists was that everyone should have access to nutritious food. This understanding of “togetherness” is especially clear in the ways in which food insecurities have been addressed in the community since the pandemic, specifically in reference to senior citizens, essential employees, and school-aged children.

Council member Cheh weighed in on the importance of providing proper nutrition to school children throughout the year.

“I want to talk about some of these different groups, and the different needs that they have.  Talking about the Healthy Schools Act, when I first passed that statute, which provides among other things, everybody gets a free breakfast. And then there’s food throughout the day, then we had to connect it to after school, and the meals provided in the parks. There’s a gap between the end of school, the beginnings of the park programs and when that ends. We wanted to have food available throughout. You can’t take a vacation when the children need this food,” Cheh said.

Cheh said she initially received pushback when implementing these free programs, but after a month or two the opposition was silenced because the benefits of the programs were obvious.

“If children have something to eat then they are willing to learn,” the Council member added.

Dr. Wheeler made it a point to talk about the senior citizen population, and how they suffer the most from food insecurities around the country.

“Our seniors are number one in the nation for food insecurities, that is reprehensible,” Wheeler said passionately.

Griffith shared why it is important to change people’s relationships with food in undersourced communities.

“There’s a huge misconception that people living in underserved communities don’t necessarily want to eat healthy, and that’s completely wrong. They just need the resources and sometimes the inspiration to make healthy food for them and their family,” Griffith said.

Brown noted that a large percentage of underserved populations includes undocumented residents.

“It’s really important to make sure that we’re providing services to all those who find respite in D.C., as well as bringing culturally competent food to them,” Brown said. “To actually ask what is the need of the community? What are some culturally neutral foods we can provide to make sure everyone has access?”

Brown also emphasized the importance of food addressing the root issues of food insecurity and inequities in the District and nation such as lack of access to other resources such as a strong education, health care facilities, transportation and more.

“While we’re feeding people we have to do everything we can to address the systemic issues that are at the root cause of the issue in the District of Columbia,” Brown said passionately.

The panelists and Xi Omega speakers emphasized the importance of the conversation not only being enlightening, but a call to action.  Xi Omega collected donations for their food pantry to donate to nearby hungry neighbors as well as a Youth Art Supplies drive sponsored by the Pearl and Ivy Educational Foundation (PIEF).

The work, however, does not stop with the King holiday.  It is everyone’s duty to help stop food insecurity in communities.

“We know we are not alone in this food fight,” Brown said.

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