If you wanted to stop at the grocery store on the way home from the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8, you’d have to go nearly two miles to get to the one full-service supermarket. Nearly half of the residents in the neighborhood, which is located east of the city’s Anacostia River, don’t even have access to a car.
The lack of access to groceries amid a neighborhood in need of healthy, affordable food is one of the points made by a major new exhibition, “Food for the People: Eating & Activism in Greater Washington.” Inequities in the nation’s food system are seen through this expansive consideration of the issues with a lens tightly focused on one community in the District of Columbia.
Originally planned to open last year, “Food for the People” was delayed by another major crisis—the Covid-19 pandemic that caused the museum to be closed for nearly a year and a half. And this after the museum had already been closed for seven months for renovation in 2019.
Officials there pivoted, bringing some of the more salient points of the exhibition outdoors, with bold (and weatherproof) graphics in April, until the indoor exhibition space could be reopened. That date finally came in August.
“We’re so happy to be reopened after 16 months, especially with such an important exhibition,” says museum director Melanie Adams. “We did find new ways to connect outdoors and virtually, but in reopening, are pleased to again welcome guests in our galleries.”
The outdoor portion remains on the museum plaza, where it displays two of the more sobering statistics: That the United States currently cultivates 40 million more acres than would be needed to feed all Americans, and up to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted each year. Still, 11 percent of U.S. households experience food insecurity, which is defined as limited or uncertain access to affordable food.
“Every time a bag of lettuce is tossed aside, much more than spoiled produce goes out of the window,” says a report quoted from the National Resources Defense Council. “It’s also a waste of labor, of vehicle miles, of water, of fertilizer. We’re wasting money, trashing resources and accelerating the changing of our climate.”
The grocery store gap is also addressed, comparing Ward 8’s one supermarket for every 85,160 residents to the wealthier, similarly sized Ward 3, where there is a store for every 9,336 residents. The disparity sparked a 2017 protest that is depicted in the exhibition, when more than 500 people marched the two miles between historic Anacostia down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, S.E. to the Giant food store to demonstrate the lack of options.
“These are issues that are very much urgent issues in the D.C. area, particularly here in Ward 8,” says Samir Meghelli, curator of “Food for the People.”
“People are facing these issues on a daily basis and this is the way to shine a light on them, for people to better understand the issues, and also learn from and be inspired by people who are working to transform the current reality.”
Adapting aspects of the indoor exhibition to the outdoor plaza as a response to Covid was something few other museums attempted.
“To my knowledge I think it’s the only effort to do that, to take something that was intended to be indoors and create indoors and outdoors,” Meghelli says. “We’re obviously relatively smaller than our fellow Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, so that sometimes allows us to be more nimble. And as a community museum, we always try to be reactive and adaptive, especially to the needs of our local community, so this was an effort in that spirit.”
Excerpts from interviews with local food activists from the DC Food Policy Council to the Capital Area Food Bank and DC Hunger Solutions are posted outdoors along with statistics and prompts viewers to take action.
Indoors, the exhibition has a number of innovative displays, including one that follows the journey of a single chicken wing from chick to discarded bones. The city’s history in community-run food programs from the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program for Children to the hunger strikes organized by the Community for Creative Non-Violence, are noted.
The variety of the region’s diverse food cultures are celebrated, and issues about it are raised—there are no Chinese grocery stores in Washington’s Chinatown, for example, forcing those who want those ingredients to travel to supermarkets in Falls Church, Virginia, or Rockville, Maryland.
But there’s hope as well, with a look at government policy and community activist response to hunger, and the rise of pop-up mobile markets to offer fresh, healthy alternatives to what’s offered at convenience stores and bodegas.
As with other exhibitions at the Anacostia Community Museum, the focus on Washington’s issues are meant to resonate to communities across the country.
“It’s also a national issue: trying to really reimagine how we use our land and for what purposes,” Meghelli says. “Similarly, the disparity of the number of grocery stores is very much a reality in communities across the country. So even with that we have local statistics to an issue that resonates elsewhere.”
The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. All visitors aged 2 and older are required to wear face coverings indoors.