Pepper’s journey from Virginia farm to DC’s Salvation Army shines a light on hunger



The poblano peppers were deep green, with a waxy skin that reflected the sunlight. They had grown in Loudoun County soil alongside 20,000 pepper plants of everything from bells to jalapeños, and on this August morning, volunteers were stacking them in green plastic bins. A cargo truck was waiting to transport them.

Like the rest of the 230,000 pounds of fresh produce and protein produced this year at JK Community Farm in Purcellsville, Va., the delivery was not headed to a grocery store or farmers’ market, but to families in need.

Nearly a third of Washington-area residents struggled to access food last year, according to the Capital Area Food Bank, which distributed more than 64 million meals in 2021. That number was more than double 2019 levels, and food providers say the increase in food distributed illustrates not only that hunger has worsened in the region, but that more families are coming to rely on food aid as regular addition to their lives.

The journey of a single product – for example, a can of organic poblano peppers – illustrates the chain of effort and dedication involved in providing these meals, and how that effort is still not enough to meet the existing need. .

As the last of the produce was loaded and the delivery truck pulled away, Samantha Kuhn, the farm’s 29-year-old general manager, turned her attention back to her ever-turning 150-acre operation.

“We want farms like this everywhere,” Kuhn said. “There would be a lot more access to healthy food.”

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Kuhn, who grew up in Fairfax as the fourth of nine children, has always had an interest in nutrition and medicine. She attended medical and science camps and thought that one day she would become a pediatrician. she signed up at the University of Tennessee as a pre-med student.

But a class in her freshman year changed course. The professor encouraged the students to “do something that makes a difference,” Kuhn said, and handed them a list of community groups to explore. From this list, Kuhn worked on a farm in Knoxville that grew healthy fruits and vegetables for those in need, and people could work for the food grown. He also donated some of the food to places that served the homeless and the prison system. One day, Kuhn concluded, she wanted to start her own farm to help others.

After graduating, she worked in stem cell research, but kept coming back to the idea of ​​the farm. For the next two to three years, she asked her parents to help her get started. His mother, Stacy Kuhn, grew up in a low-income household and understood the need. “Eventually they got on board,” Kuhn said.

Her father, Chuck Kuhn, owns the Sterling-based moving company JK Moving Services, and in 2018 she donated a plot of land in western Loudoun County for the farm. The company got the naming rights, but is otherwise a separate organization, Samantha Kuhn said.

Today, Kuhn has another employee, Mike Smith, the farm’s general manager. Otherwise, the operation, funded by grants and corporate sponsorships, relies on about 4,500 volunteers each year for planting and harvesting, a setup that allows it to give away its entire harvest for free.

In this work, although not a pediatrician’s work, Kuhn sees some of the same priorities. According to her, fresh foods promote healthy lifestyles by preventing chronic disease and providing low-income families with alternatives to processed foods.

But Kuhn also believes in the dignity of choice. The farm sends an annual survey to the households it serves to find out what types of products they want.

Peppers are always the first request.

An hour and a half after leaving the farm, the delivery truck backed up to the DC Central Kitchen loading dock on Second Street in northwest Washington, a few blocks from Union Station. Staff soon began toting the green plastic bins of produce into the association’s kitchen, tucked away in the basement of a homeless shelter.

“Oh, we have poblanos! said Kisha Marshall, the director of culinary operations, as she surveyed the piles of produce entering the kitchen. She picked one up and started grilling it on a gas grill.

“We’re going to roast them, wrap them to get them piping hot,” Marshall told production cook Navelle Garrett.

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The kitchen was a hive of activity. Several meals were being assembled for delivery over the next few days. DC Central Kitchen takes donated food and turns it into nutritious meals, which are then sent to schools, shelters and nonprofits. Over the past year, it has provided 5.6 million meals with food from multiple sources, such as farms, a Franciscan monastery in the northeast and the USDA Farmer’s Market, said Melissa Gold, Director of Communications.

Marshall was now integrating poblanos and other JK Community Farm items into chicken fajita plates that would be delivered in two days to 19 sites. The meals would serve 1,300 people.

Marshall, who does menu development and planning, has been with the association for just over a year. She was drawn to the kitchen’s mission, so much so that she left her position as head of research and development at the legendary José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup.

“I fell in love with who they are,” Marshall said of DC Central Kitchen. “I just needed to be here.”

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Marshall said she was able to take what she learned from working with Andrés on how to feed masses of people and cook sustainably and economically and bring it to the nonprofit. DC nonprofit. Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen, which operates globally and provides thousands of chef-prepared dishes to areas affected by natural disasters or mired in conflict.

“There’s an even greater need here right now,” she said, adding that she saw people on the streets eating food prepared at DC Central Kitchen. “It’s a satisfaction to know that people who couldn’t get a good meal are getting a good meal,” Marshall said.

Many kitchen workers have experienced food insecurity themselves. DC Central Kitchen has a 14-week culinary skills training program and actively recruits participants from halfway houses, homeless shelters, through the mayor’s office and social workers and elsewhere. Over the past 30 years, it has helped more than 1,700 people kick-start their culinary careers, with around 100 people graduating from its training site in the past year, according to the nonprofit.

“It’s definitely a second, third, fourth chance,” Gold said.

Garrett is a recent graduate of the program, and on the day the peppers arrived, she helped Marshall grill test plates of fajitas, a process the kitchen staff would repeat over the next two days. Before Friday’s meal deliveries were completed, they had to make sure everything was working.

Fajitas arrived in foil pans for lunch distribution at the Salvation Army Sherman Avenue Corps in northwest Washington, where Christy Harris and others stood in the kitchen and divided seasoned chicken, peppers and onions and tortillas in a few takeout dishes. containers. Harris, an administrative assistant, numbered the lids with a marker to track the number of people served that day. Then she waited.

It was nearly 12:30 p.m., and for the next hour lunch would be served. Bags of fruit, with two apples and two oranges, were also part of the meal, served every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“You meet a lot of families who are really, really unlucky,” Harris said. “A woman had five children and their gas had been turned off. Another guy had a room, kids, but no food.

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Before covid-19 people could eat at a table inside the establishment and socialize a bit. But for the past two years, customers have stayed outside, sometimes eating on a concrete step outside the building, often alone.

Joseph Hughes of northwest Washington was the first to arrive. The soft-spoken 70-year-old said he has been coming to the Salvation Army outpost regularly for food for the past two years and that fajitas will be his lunch and dinner. But if he was hungry, his friends would also “help me with food”.

He sat to eat outside the red brick Salvation Army building, which opened in 1966 on the corner of Sherman Avenue and Morton Street, a neighborhood that has seen an exodus long-time residents and an influx of wealthier newcomers. All around him were gleaming boutique-style condominiums and renovated townhouses.

Jorome Benton, 42, has lived in the neighborhood all his life. He arrived on his bike and said he often stopped for lunch. “It’s something to get through” the week, he says.

“I’ve been coming here since I was little, to eat or to play basketball,” he says. “It helps everyone who has nothing to eat.”

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Benton was the second person to show up that day. By 12:45 p.m., four meals of chicken fajitas had been distributed. Three more people arrived before lunch was over. The seventh was Andre H. Fields, 62, who said he was also a regular at the Salvation Army facility, about a 10-minute walk from his home.

Fields said he started coming there for lunch while caring for his mother full-time, before she died last year. He lives off his savings and says he relies on the Salvation Army for about 60% of his food, for lunch and his pantry twice a week.

“They give you a bit of everything…a well-rounded diet you can live on,” Fields said, and it was also a diet brought together by many other lifetimes. “You have to eat your vegetables.”


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