Features

Turtle Tales: From Java Joint to D.C. Changing the Food System

BRIAN SHOBE, Turtle Tales Columnist

Joelle Johnson'09. Photo courtesy of Joelle Johnson.

One hundred and twenty cooks, 3,000 pounds of recycled food, 40 percent local produce and 10,000 meals a day. As you might suspect, this is not Commons. This is D.C. Central Kitchen. Founder Robert Egger calls it “a job-training program, a for-profit catering company, a cooking school, a drug-counseling program, a support group, a job bank, a food service institution, an empowerment zone and a true ‘model’ program. It’s a take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses, well-oiled hunger fighting machine.”

It’s also home to Joelle Johnson’09. Johnson is the Local Initiative and Procurement Coordinator–the one responsible for hitting that astounding 40 percent local mark. She also creates and implements educational programming and grants, like Truck Farms (traveling, edible, mini-farm exhibits in the back of pick-up trucks) and Healthy Corners (a delivery service that partners with “corner stores” to sell fresh produce in D.C.’s food deserts).

In just two years, Johnson went from Beloit’s commencement stage to working for one of the most innovative non-profits in the country.

How? It started with an independent project at Beloit. Johnson had heard various claims about the nutritional benefits of organic produce, but couldn’t find the research to back it up. Curious, and wanting to do practical research, she decided to create an independent chemistry project in which she would test the difference in nutritional value between organic and conventional produce.

Johnson then spent the next two months going to farmers markets and cold-calling farmers. In order to convince them to participate, she visited their farms, learned about their operations and built relationships. Johnson then set about collecting, sampling and performing chemical analysis on the produce. When the six month project ended, the lab results turned out to be statistically insignificant, but Joelle maintains that the project was successful.

She realized that working with farmers brought her joy, and that she had learned how to build relationships with them. She also proved that she had initiative, could set and follow her own deadlines, and juggle multiple projects. Plus, her research led her to a national health conference, where she became inspired by individuals and organizations working with farmers across the country to change the food system.

“I set out wondering about the nutritional benefits of organic [food]…” she says, “but what I realized after getting involved was that nutrition was just the tip of the iceberg. The issue is so much deeper and bigger than that. It really is the whole food system itself.”

These realizations and experiences led her to food justice work. At Beloit, she worked to get Peace Coffee into Java Joint. After graduation, she did a year-long AmeriCorps stint with Campus Kitchens (D.C. Central’s college branch). That, along with some additional volunteering, led to her to her current position.

Today, Johnson works on the interconnected issues of hunger, poverty, nutrition education, urban/rural agriculture, procurement and food systems. “A little bit of everything,” she says, “which is where that liberal arts degree really comes in handy.”

As part of this year’s Duffy Colloquium, featuring speaker Robert Egger, Joelle Johnson will be on campus tomorrow and Wednesday to talk to students, faculty and staff about D.C. Central Kitchen, her experiences and food issues in general.

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