Washington D.C. Food System

Current Food System

By: Annie, Carson, Gaby, Hayley, Jennifer, Sarah


The Washington D.C. food system has a large influence on the stability of the environment. The D.C. Metropolitan area is working hard to buy local products and is working towards a greener environmental carbon footprint. It is estimated that by 2032, D.C. will have reduced their carbon emissions by 50% (DC.gov). D.C. is working towards establishing community gardens in urban areas to allow residents to plant and pick homegrown foods. The urban garden initiative is taking off throughout the city, as there are now over 20 community gardens that are rented to the public (DC.gov). By allowing residents to grow their own food within the city, they are reducing transportation emissions as well as curbing the consumption of mass produced crops, which use large amounts of chemicals and herbicides.

Even though D.C. is succeeding in reducing carbon emissions, they are failing to provide essential waste disposal solutions and continue to contribute to the runoff in the Chesapeake Bay area.  Most of the D.C. trash is transported out of the city and to a Virginia incinerator. D.C. lacks proper disposal solutions to help compost and dispose of waste in an environmentally friendly manner. Along with waste management issues, the general metropolitan area contributes a large portion of runoff and eutrophication into the Potomac River and general Chesapeake Bay area watershed. The citywide pollution and runoff is continuing to be a major factor in the deterioration of the environment. Along with the waste management solution, the runoff pollution must be addressed in order to reverse environmental effects of the food system at large in Washington D.C.

The greater DC area has an expansive agricultural diversity, and the implications of this system are interconnected between the environment, the peoples, and the food produced. The Virginia and Maryland areas have a large amount of agricultural land. Agricultural practices in Maryland focus on poultry and dairy production, followed closely by corn and soybeans grown for animal feed. Other Maryland crops include wheat, hay, barley, tobacco, sweet corn, and tomatoes (Netstate). Beyond agricultural crops and farming, Maryland has an active fishery presence as well. Maryland is the leading state in the production of blue crabs, along other seafood such as swordfish, flounder, striped bass, and scallops and oysters. Blue Crabs are maryland’s most valuable commercial fishery (Netstate). The harvesting of blue crabs must be approached with caution however, due to the variability of blue crab populations. Blue crab populations have been in decline and in danger in recent years. The Virginia agriculture sector, the largest industry in Virginia, is similar to that of Maryland, with main industries being poultry and dairy, and a domination of corn and soy for grain production in the crop sector. Tobacco and tomatoes are also major cash crops for Virginia. Virginia’s second largest commodity, however, is beef production (Ag Classroom).

The large amount of agricultural production in the rural areas surrounding DC have a significant impact on the DC area. Not only do these farms contribute to the DC area food system, they also contribute to environmental impacts in the area. For instance, the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay are highly polluted due to the impacts of agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff can also lead to eutrophication in watershed areas and lead to the devastation of aquatic life. The agricultural sector of the DC surrounding area brings the significance of inputs and outputs on our food systems diagram into perspective.

Our nation’s food system has its roots in local, state-level, and national policy. Here in D.C., we are surrounded by many NGOs, governmental organizations, public and private interest groups, etc. that represent farmers, fishers, consumers, and other food-related groups. Outside of D.C., many people may not feel connected to politics and may realize how much influence policy has on our food. U.S. food policies not only have national implications but also international ones as in many ways, they may influence, catalyze, or set the standard for other countries’ food policies. The reverse is also true: international trade agreements set by the World Trade Organization, for example, may play a big role in why our current food systems are the way they are. Living in D.C. provides us the opportunity to visit offices and interact with the policy-makers, lobbyists, lawyers, directors, and other political players in a unique way. Recently, we visited the National Family Farm Coalition and spoke with Executive Director Katherine Ozer who really expanded our thinking about global food policy. Overall, simply inhabiting our nation’s capitol makes us more aware about the food policy and has sparked many questions.

Social and cultural issues are deeply entwined in food systems, as consumer culture helps dictate the demand and acceptance of certain products. In theory, the creation of a sustainable food system would only require an analysis of the economic, environmental, and policy side of the system, yet by ignoring the need to address the cultural component, little can be achieved. Food itself is an integral staple of any culture, making the cultural component a key aspect to any food system. The foods that individuals and communities are knowledgeable about will be the food that is accepted, purchased, and consumed. Food culture is therefore at the center of the economic part of food systems, as it drives the consumer. When nutritious food is placed in low-income neighborhoods with no nutrition education or culturally accepted food options, the food is meaningless and often harmful for the families themselves through the process of gentrification, as demonstrated through the Newkirk article. In order to develop and sustain a just food system, cultural issues need to be addressed in order to help expand access to fresh foods in an community appropriate and respectful way.

A 2010 study by DC Hunger Solutions found that the district’s forty-three grocery stores were unevenly distributed, leading to a “grocery gap” that left lower-income wards without full-service options (“Healthy Food”). Although the district has advocated for more stores in underserved areas, we learned this week that new grocery stores can promote gentrification. In addition, not all stores are financially or culturally accessible, but the district has been trying to expand its SNAP and WIC benefits programs.

Institutional purchasing by schools, prisons and hospitals also plays an important role in the DC food system, due to the volume of orders and the number of consumers served. For example, CentroNía Charter School has contracts with Sysco and DC Central Kitchen, ordering enough ingredients to prepare meals for eight hundred children every day. And that’s just one small school.

There are over two thousand eating establishments in Washington D.C. alone. In 2016, the District’s restaurant industry is projected to do $3.6 billion in sales. Currently over sixty thousand people hold jobs within D.C.’s restaurant and foodservice industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, that number is on the rise and is predicted to increase by 7.5 percent in the next ten years. (National Restaurant Association, 2016)

In Washington D.C. the food industry expands far beyond brick and mortar restaurants into food trucks and farmers markets. There are over one hundred and ninety farmers markets in and around the city. (Krystal, 2016).  Farmers markets provide an opportunity for people residing in the city to access local, fresh food.

A popular alternative to fast food for working people at lunch time are food trucks. With roughly two hundred and forty five trucks currently in the city, it is never hard to find one. (Kyle, 2016). While the general public may love food trucks, those who work in the restaurant business aren’t always as fond of them. The overhead price on food trucks is much lower than owning a restaurant establishment.

A very unique aspect of the District’s food systems are food incubators. In our last food systems challenge we had the opportunity to visit Union Kitchen, one of the city’s largest food incubators. Union Kitchen, and other food incubators, play a very important role in reducing the barrier to entry of success in the food industry for local entrepreneurs. With a food system this competitive it can be nearly impossible for local business to run a successful startup. Union Kitchen can provide the resources to encourage local businesses to thrive.

Ideal Food System


In our vision of an ideal food system, the arrows that we have drawn to represent size and amount of influence by each different institution would differ. In an ideal system, greater significance would be given to the biological and cultural influence on policy. Economic power would be given less influence in the policy system, and the goal would be that this shift in power dynamics would lead to a shift towards more culturally appropriate, accessible, and biologically mindful food systems. Furthermore, in our ideal system, the relationship between inputs and outputs would change as well. We envision a system in which the synthetic inputs such as chemicals, pesticides, and patented seeds are significantly decreased, but this shift would probably would require an increase in inputs such as labor. We hope that nutrient cycling from proper care of the soil, use of cover crops and other agro-ecological techniques can maintain an appropriate input level, and therefore reduce outputs such as CO2 and greenhouse gases, pollution and pesticide runoff, and food waste.

Works Cited

“Greenhouse Gas Inventory.” DC.gov. Department of Energy and Environment, n.d. Web. 9 July 2016.

Singer, Josh. “DPR Community Gardens.” DC.gov. Department of Parks and Recreation, n.d. Web. 9 July 2016

“When Healthy Food is Out of Reach: An Analysis of the Grocery Gap in the District of Columbia.” DC Hunger Solutions. DC Hunger Solutions, 2010. Web. 9 July 2016.

“Maryland Economy.” Netstate: Maryland. Web. 10 July 2016.

“Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Population Shows Improvement.” Maryland.gov. Department of Natural Resources. April 12, 2016. Web. 10 July 2016.

“A Look at Virginia Agriculture.” Ag Classroom. July 2010. Web. 10 July 2016.

Krystal, Kara Elder Becky, and Emily Chow Updated: March 27, 2016. “Farmers Markets in the Washington, D.C. Area.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. July 2016.

“District of Columbia RESTAURANT INDUSTRY AT A GLANCE.” National Restaurant Association, 2016. Web.

Kyle. “Food Truck Fiesta – a Real-time Automated DC Food Truck Tracker.” Food Truck Fiesta – a Real-time Automated DC Food Truck Tracker. N.p., n.d. Web. July 2016.