By Anne McNulty
Over 1000 meals are being delivered to seven sites throughout Southwest D.C. each weekday. When kids began remote schooling, there was an immediate need to provide meals that would have otherwise been provided at school, and that need has only grown as the negative effects of coronavirus sweep through our region.
The daily meal deliveries are a part of a formal partnership between the Southwest Business Improvement District (SWBID), the Washington Nationals Philanthropies, Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK), and DC Public Schools (DCPS). At the heart of the program’s success, though, is a strong patchwork of committed community volunteers.
Christine Spencer, one such volunteer, has lived at James Creek in Southwest, D.C. almost all her life. She’s raised two daughters there and volunteered her time to the James Creek Resident Council for the last fifteen years.
Ms. Spencer is used to coming up with solutions on the fly. She says she gets calls every day, sometimes people knocking on her door any hour of the night, asking for help with whatever has come up. She seems to have a pulse on every neighbor and how they’re doing. Her years of being an active volunteer on the Resident Council have made her a deep well of community resources and connections.
One of Ms. Spencer’s many connections is Stephen X, a staff member at the D.C. nonprofit Training Grounds. Following an escalation in violent crime in the neighborhood a few years ago, Christine worked with councilmember Charles Allen’s office to get funding in the budget for programming to support at-risk kids. She ended up selecting Training Grounds, and now Stephen has been embedded in Southwest as a case manager focused on violence interruption for the past two years.
“Ms. Spencer is somebody who is a deep, deep lover of her community,” said Stephen, “We don’t go into communities trying to reinvent the wheel and this is why we found so much love down here with Ms. Spencer because she was already doing the work, and all we did was come and say, ‘Well how can we help?’”
Following the closure of in-person schooling, DCPS set up free meal sites across the District. As a part of his work as a violence interrupter, Stephen was stationed at the Jefferson Middle School site in Southwest to help ease any potential tensions among students picking up meals. The only problem Stephen noticed, however, was that hardly anyone was coming by, so he called up Ms. Spencer.
“It really didn’t make sense,” said Ms. Spencer, “because, if you’re in a pandemic, if you live in James Creek you’re not going to send your child all the way down to Jefferson to get food. You don’t want to send your child to walk or get the bus to get breakfast, that’s a lot. Your kids are supposed to be in the house.”
So Christine started making some calls. She reached out to councilmember Charles Allen’s office and from there, it was just a matter of better connecting goodwill to more specific needs. The SWBID learned of the need for meal deliveries from Councilmember Charles Allen’s office, then worked with Ms. Spencer, and her resident’s council counterparts at Greenleaf Gardens and the Greenleaf extension housing, to set up a pilot meal delivery program. They are currently bringing 250 meals per day from the DCPS site to the two locations at Greenleaf and James Creek.
In bringing meals directly to where people live, a need for more meals quickly became apparent. The neighboring Washington Nationals Philanthropies had partnered with WCK to convert their unused stadium into a community kitchen. The SWBID reached out to the Washington Nationals Philanthropies to plug into WCK’s distribution chain to handle more meal deliveries to Southwest residents.
In the initial weeks of setting up the meal deliveries, Ms. Spencer and Stephen were committing up to six hours of their time each day to make sure that meals were getting to the people who needed them most. In addition to managing the drop off site, Stephen goes door-to-door delivering meals to the most vulnerable. Ms. Spencer coordinates with other community members to come by and pick up batches of meals for other drop off locations. As the patchwork of volunteers has grown to include sixteen point people, the distribution program has also grown to now include the over 1,000 meals at seven different drop off locations across Southwest, D.C.
As of mid-May, the program had delivered over 30,000 meals.
“I’ve been living here almost all my life. I’ve watched folks grow up and I’ve raised my kids here,” said Ms. Spencer, “It’s needed. This is our community, so we have to help.”
Thank you to all the meal delivery community partners and volunteers: YaVonne Boyd, Chris Bradshaw, Jasmine Campbell, Gloria Clark, Davon Gamble, Antwan Gillis (Gill), Rhonda Hamilton, Thelma Jones, Phyllis Johnson, Shawn Lightfoot, Jeanne Mattison, Karen McManus, Naomi Mitchell, Moneek Scott, Christine Spencer, Dena Walker, and Stephen X.