September 25, 2017

A historic D.C. church serves as the site for a local food revolution

The nonprofit Dreaming Out Loud cultivates a healthy community and creates economic opportunity through urban farming

The site of D.C.'s historic Friendship Baptist Church serves as a community center for the arts and also includes a community-managed, “micro-farm.” Photo by Mikhail Klimentov

Washington D.C.’s Friendship Baptist Church is listed on the National Register of Historic places—and for good reason. The church was designed by Howard Dilworth Woodson, a pioneering black civil engineer and local activist. The building, completed in 1886, hosted one of D.C.’s oldest African-American congregations; it also served as a community center and meeting space for religious and civil rights groups.

Decades later, in 2013, the church was transformed into an art space. The austere, plain white building was transformed by a colorful wrap-around mural by American contemporary artist Alex “HENSE” Brewer.

Today, the church serves as a launching pad for an initiative to develop an equitable and healthy food system for D.C.’s underserved communities. Dreaming Out Loud, a D.C.-based nonprofit, runs an urban farm on a small lawn behind the church. The organization’s ambition is to run the farm as a pilot test for a larger two-acre farm, currently slated to open later this year in D.C.’s Ward 7—a food desert with a total of two supermarkets for its 70,000 residents.

Earlier this year, we spoke to Dreaming Out Loud founder Chris Bradshaw about food access and the inequities plaguing his community, as well as his plans to enact positive change. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get started with Dreaming out Loud?

I ended up writing grants for a charter school, helping them try and beef up some of their programs. One summer, a teacher got sick and couldn’t make it for the summer school program, and they asked me if I would teach a class called character development—which I didn’t really know was a thing to be taught in school—but I definitely saw that it was needed so I decided to make it into an after-school program as well. We started with an after-school program, and then along the way I started noticing that the kids had really terrible snacks, like sugary drinks and crackers. They would just bounce off the wall and crash.

Dreaming Out Loud founder Chris Bradshaw is helping to bring healthy food options to a D.C. neighborhood where access to fresh produce is limited. Photo by Mikhail Klimentov

I moved the program along to work with older youth. We had 72 high school students in the summer youth employment program and they would show up not ready to work in the summers, having had honey buns and sweet tea for breakfast. You could see the evolution of the food issue. They just never had any options in their neighborhood at all, so we ended up starting a farmers market, and ended up getting more and more engrossed in the food system and just saw that there were opportunities for new ownership, community wealth-building through food. You could start new businesses. You could grow healthy food in communities that don’t have equal access, start new farmers markets. It just kind of grew in terms of our activism in the food system.

Along the way I had to plug in and advocate for different laws to get passed or be implemented, and that ended up getting me on the D.C. Food Policy Council. So now I serve on the Urban Agriculture and Food System Education working group as a part of the Food Policy Council, trying to move policies forward and bigger systemic solutions in food.

What is the biggest systemic issue facing food access and distribution?

I think there are big infrastructure gaps. There are skills gaps between the folks that most need employment and what new jobs are coming about in the food system. There are still policy gaps to make sure that the right incentives are there to encourage new forms of ownership like cooperatives and other supports for low-income residents and people who are traditionally marginalized in our broader society and within the food system. We want to help bridge those gaps.

There’s very little cold storage or refrigerated storage for people to be able to aggregate and distribute produce and build a more localized food system. Access to commercial kitchen space is a big challenge for entrepreneurs in general but especially for folks who start off with less capital and less access to the resources to build a business. We want to start to bridge those gaps and help folks plot a new future for themselves, have some agency over their lives, and build some businesses they could pass down to their kids.

How did you get started in this space, at this particular urban farm?

A friend told us about it. She knew we were running the farmers markets and she put us in touch with some folks that were in charge of this space. It took some persistence to finally get something signed so we could get in here and start growing food. Nevertheless, we got in here and just went to work. When we first got here it looked like a jungle. It had been abandoned for 20-plus years, and so it was really an exercise in fighting weeds for the first two seasons. It was out of control.

We’ve been in this space for—I think this is our third full growing season. We’ve kind of maneuvered things around, rebuilt some things, added compost bins, added some fabric planters where we grow lots of fruits and vegetables and herbs. The idea in this space is to engage folks through education and volunteership, but also to sell some of what we grow. It’s practice for us building out a two-acre farm in Ward 7 as we try and use the food system to bring people together and create economic opportunity.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.