Christopher Bradshaw had already been running his nonprofit Dreaming Out Loud for more than a decade when the pandemic hit.
The organization works toward fighting food scarcity in the Washington, D.C., area by partnering with local farmers, caterers, restaurants and other food relief organizations to prepare and distribute free meals. As the pandemic hit the District, Bradshaw knew the organization's work would be vital to helping people survive, like one single mother who came in search of meals for her children.
“She came to us and said, ‘I’m really happy that you all are here and thankful that you all are here, because I have $14 in my bank account, and my father died last week,’ and she was there with two kids,” Bradshaw recalled. “She said, ‘I don’t know how I was going to feed my kids.’ We see and hear those types of things.”
Beyond Washington, Black communities across the country face disproportionately higher rates of food scarcity, which has only been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Food insecurity rates among Black households with children were nearly double compared to white households with children, according to a July 2020 report by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University; food insecurity rates for Black respondents hovered around 41 percent, the report found, while for white respondent food insecurity rates were around 23 percent.
In D.C., Dreaming Out Loud saw the need early in the pandemic, and got to work with World Central Kitchen, which provides meals to people around the globe struck by disasters, and Little Sesame, a renowned group of restaurants, to launch Meals for the City, with other Black-owned caterers and businesses. They distributed thousands of meals from a middle school from March 2020 to July.
“We knew there were folks who were already working on these issues, that had roots in the community, that had relationships, and that were trusted,” said Nick Wiseman, co-founder of Little Sesame. “So we really leaned on Chris and his team at Dreaming Out Loud to sort of establish that trust in the community we were serving.”
Black communities in the D.C. region were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to 2021 research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 58 percent of people infected with Covid-19 in Washington were Black, although Black people make up only 45 percent of the District’s population.
Diane Schanzenbach, an economist and the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, said the problem of economic disparity in the Black community is linked to declining wages and wealth gaps. It is also harder for Black and Latino families, along with lower education groups, to recover from recessions.
“It is just an economic fact about recessions, that Black people’s unemployment rates spike higher when there’s an economic downturn, and it takes longer for them to come back down to normal,” Schanzenbach said. “It means there’s more suffering. It means there’s more economic uncertainty for Black families.”
Bradshaw said he sees the results of these disparities across the communities he serves. Before the pandemic, one of Dreaming Out Loud’s main initiatives was leading a Black farm Community Supported Agriculture program, which sources produce from Black farmers from across the region. Dreaming Out Loud also partners with multiple local organizations to ensure healthy food is accessible in schools, restaurants and small grocers.
“We would have folks come up and say, literally, ‘I have HIV and sickle cell. So, if this farmer’s market wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be able to afford healthy food to stay alive,’” Bradshaw said. “So those are the things that drove our response, and also kept us going when things were challenging.”
While Bradshaw said that large-scale government restitution and economic protection would have a greater impact on these disparities, his organization is attempting to fill the gaps that systemic racism creates. The organization also tries to shape the nutrition of D.C.’s young people through its food and farm hub, which sources fresh produce for its programs, and also provides ingredients for students’ lunches at Kelly Miller Middle School.
For Thanksgiving this year, Dreaming Out Loud has already distributed turkeys and other ingredients to help as many families as possible gather around tables. The organization also plans to distribute soup made from recovered pumpkins.
Beyond the holidays, through its annual Dream Program, the organization trains more than 30 food entrepreneurs in how to successfully launch their business. By expanding into a new shared location with its partner, D.C. Central Kitchen, Dream Program participants will use the new kitchen space to hone their skills and take advantage of opportunities such as taking on catering jobs and selling their products in stores.
“At an organizational level,” Bradshaw said, “it’s important for us to be involved in the work because by being involved in your work, we’re engaged and involved in the struggle, which allows us the platform to talk about these bigger picture issues around reparations and justice, that are integral to being able to build out a decent, honorable, deserved and well-lived life for Black folks in America.”