Advocating for Access in DC: An Interview with Winnie Huston

Editor's note: NESAWG staff regularly interviews leaders in our regional food movement. Know somebody who should be featured? Let us know at [email protected].

Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What work do you do? How did you end up in this work?

My name is Winnie Huston and I am beginning a new chapter in my life as I approach my 64th birthday. I’m less than 6 months into full-time work (worked part-time for a few months last year) as the Community Advocacy Coordinator for DC Greens, a food justice non-profit in Washington, DC. One of our core values is to promote community ownership of changes in the food system/food access in DC. To that end, we work to ensure that marginalized community members have channels to influence, shape, manage, and control the solutions, policies, and programs that impact their lives.

One component of my work is managing the Community Advocacy Program (CAP) and supporting our cohort of Community Advocates. The Advocates are members of the community who are most impacted by food insecurity in DC. This means they either live in areas of the City with limited access to fresh and nutritious food (particularly fruits and vegetables), are facing the challenges of being low income, and/or have faced food insecurity in their lives. The CAP is a training program that teaches Advocates how to use the levers of power and their agency to influence and shape solutions to the concerns they face in a rapidly gentrifying city.

I came to this work after many years of retirement. I had a health scare and was able to mitigate the health issues through healthier eating, coaching by a nutritionist, and exercise. After I began feeling better, I realized that I was able to turn my health around without medication primarily because of where I live in DC. I have easy access to 6 - 7 grocery stores (major and small footprint), a marvelous twice a week farmers’ market, and a walkable neighborhood. Also, my neighborhood grocery store offers nutrition
counseling. I realized that if I lived in a different part of town, my health outcome would have been significantly different. I committed to work to ensure that others had the same opportunity to manage their health and that their destiny was not determined by zip code.

This work is hard. What do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep developing your skills?

I’m lucky that I work for an organization that promotes work/life balance. Staff is encouraged to telework once a week (whenever possible). We also have a generous vacation/sick leave package which we are encouraged to utilize. Further, each employee has a professional development budget to use for trainings and other skill building programs. Lastly, I work with a group of young dedicated professionals who get up every day to fight the good fight. This keeps me energized, gives me hope for the future, and frankly, keeps me young and laughing.

What food systems organizations are you working with?

Personally, I work with all of the DC based non-profits working to increase food access/fight for food justice, e.g., DC Hunger Solutions, DC Central Kitchen, Martha’s Table, Miriam’s Kitchen, National Capitol Food Bank, Food and Friends, Dreaming Out Loud, Inc., Fresh Farms, and the Arcadia Center for Food and Agriculture. Also, I work closely with the DC Food Policy Council to provide a conduit for information flow between the City policy makers and the community. Additionally, work with the Fair Budget Coalition (a coalition of groups that works for affordable housing, better support for the homeless, elderly, victims of domestic violence, education, as well as greater food access). As a coalition we support each other’s advocacy actions. This is particularly true during budget season. We work to ensure that our individual priorities are funded but not at the expense of another program.

My colleague Asha Carter, DC Greens’ Food Justice Strategist, works on the regional and national level with the major organizations working to shift the food system.

What do you see as the central challenge facing food system advocates in DC right now?

The central challenge facing advocates working to increase food access/to promote food justice is the lack of consistent community organizing around food issues. We at DC Greens work to build advocates but do not have the capacity to take the next step to community organizing. And, unfortunately, at this point none of our sister food system nonprofits have stepped into this void.

We all come from different communities and have unique identities. What do you see as the biggest issue in the food system impacting your community and people who share your identities?

To answer this question, I refer back to my previous response about the lack of community organizing in DC around food justice/food access issues. Community engagement informs all aspects of our work at DC Greens. Our work in the community is groundbreaking and creates channels for change for the Community Advocates and their circle of influence (family, neighbors, church family, etc). However, this advocacy work can only accomplish so much. To build and sustain the momentum to create political pressure to change the hearts and minds of the City leadership requires community organizing.