Rick and Michele Tingling-Clemmons set a goal to have 100 attendees at the ‘Why’ Food Justice and Our Right to Food Conference, which took place March 23-25 at Kelly Miller Middle School (301 49th St. NE). On Saturday morning, they could look out at a crowd that had exceeded those hopes.
“It wasn’t just the quantity of the people, it was the quality,” said Rick Tingling-Clemmons. “We had very confirmed, active food warriors come to the conference. They were the ones who gave it energy and juice.”
Organized by the Tingling-Clemmonses together with the Gray Panthers of Metropolitan Washington and the Central Northeast Civic Association, the conference aimed to answer fundamental questions: why is there hunger in a country as wealthy as the United States, and why do we tolerate it?
One in seven District families are food insecure, according to the conference program. The term is used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to denote households where nutritious and safe food are unavailable or difficult to acquire. 13.2 percent of all households in the District were food insecure as recently as 2015, and 4.8 percent of those households have ‘very low food security’, meaning that both adults and children skip meals and experience deeper hunger.
In the program’s introduction, the Tingling-Clemmonses wrote that “We are the working class, the 99% who produce EVERYTHING, so why are we the hungry? And further, why do we accept our suffering as normal?”
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dorothy Douglas (7D03) attended the conference. She said that hunger in the District has always been a problem even for people who might not appear to be starving.
“Just to look at a person, you can’t judge if they’re hungry or not,” she said.
She shared her own experience from a trip to the grocery store many years ago when she had struck up a conversation with a couple behind her. When it came time to pay, Douglas realized she was going to have to subtract some items from the bill. The couple stepped in to pay.
“People do care,” she said. “They just need to know what’s happening.”
Douglas pointed out that seniors have a particularly difficult time accessing food, even when they have the money to pay for it, in part due to the distances it is necessary to travel within Wards 7 and 8 to purchase nutritious groceries.
Sessions at the Why Conference linked issues related to hunger on the international, national and local levels. Chloe Marshall of the Capital Area Food Bank and Philip Sambol of the Good Food Market Cooperatives spoke on a panel that addressed the myth of “Too Little Food, Too Many People.” On Saturday morning, Dean and Director of Land-Grant Programs at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Dr. Sabine O’Hara opened a plenary session addressing the main question: why is there hunger in the world’s wealthiest nation?
Councilmember Gray (Ward 7-D) and Washington Teachers Union (WTU) Local 6 President Elizabeth Davis were among the speakers at the evening’s opening reception.
Councilmember Gray, who was recognized for his “leadership in our Ward on the issue of tackling food deserts in our community,” applauded the work of Rick and Michele Tingling-Clemmons. He presented the two with an Honorary Resolution passed by DC Council recognizing their work.
Gray noted the lack of healthy food access throughout the District’s East Side, calling attention to the three bills he is currently working on to attract businesses such as grocery stores to the area. He issued a call for action to those present, asking them to support a legislative agenda that will combat food deserts in the District.
“Let’s all resolve to do something,” he said, praising conference organizers and attendees for taking action on these issues. “We’re not going to take it anymore,” he said.
The Tingling-Clemmons said the conference was a tremendous success. “It was a great thing, and it was the beginning,” said Rick, adding that there are already plans to repeat the conference next year.
Conference participants left the event invigorated with plans for future action, he said. Two projects that are in the works are a Food-For-All bill and the creation of community political-economy classes for the people.
The Food-for-All Bill was the subject of a Saturday morning workshop. Food policy advocates on the panel included National Director for Justice Action Mobilization Network and Former Congressional Senior Legislative Associate Joel Segal. Rick said that a team of activists intends to work on drafting the bill under the direction of Segal, who possesses related knowledge and experience.
“To have that level of consciousness among our people is what makes Washington, DC a great city,” said Michele Tingling-Clemmons, before linking the lack of statehood and representation to problems with food policies in the District. “We operate at a state level of function but we are not a state; and all these elements come to the fore when talking about food,” she said.
“There’s a system organized to block us from getting what we need,” said her partner. “And we need to understand that so we can stop cooperating in our own demise.”
“It all comes back to the question of ‘Why’?,” finished Michele.
To learn more about the Gray Panthers and their work on food justice in the District visit the website of the Gray Panthers of Metro Washington https://www.graypanthersmw.org/ Contact Rick and Michele Tingling-Clemmons by emailing Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org.