Across the Wards | Fresh Food Factory’s mission to bring fresh food to D.C.’s food deserts

Owner of the Fresh Food Factory in Washington, D.C., Amanda Stevenson.
Owner of the Fresh Food Factory in Washington, D.C., Amanda Stevenson.

Ayah Mahana

Related Topics:
Business & Economics, Food

Growing up on a farm in rural Virginia, Amanda Stephenson spent her childhood learning the power of food and nutrition by tending to the crops and animals. 

When her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and a prognosis of six months to a year left to live, Stephenson’s family was forced to focus on the nutritional value and healing powers of fresh food. 

“We had to start growing vegetation and preparing more food for him differently,” Stephenson said. “So food not only became nutrition, it became medicine.” 

After changing his eating habits and lifestyle, Stephenson’s father went on to live another 18 years. 

Stephenson said she uses the lessons she learned on the farm and watching her father heal to operate her business, the Fresh Food Factory. When she settled in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., she said she noticed many people were suffering from food and nutrition related diseases due to the prevalent food desert in the area.

Founded in 2015, the Fresh Food Factory aims to engage “low-to-moderate” income residents in greater Washington, D.C., acting as a “catalyst” for food equity and development, according to Stephenson. 

“I went back to my exposure and training as a youth on the farm,” Stephenson said. “Just understanding the power of food and how it could be used to increase their life expectancy… and to be our first source of medicine.”

In 2015, the top 10 leading causes of death in Ward 8 included heart disease, hypertension, cancer and diabetes mellitus. The 2018 D.C. Health Equity Report ranked Ward 8 lowest in the city for life expectancy. 

According to the D.C. Policy Center, Ward 8 accounts for 51% of all food deserts in the District of Columbia. A food desert is defined as an area that lacks access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. 

Map of Food Deserts (Red) in Washington, DC. Ward 8 is the southernmost Ward on the Map. (Retrieved from the DC Policy Center)

Fresh Food Factory now operates out of two market locations in Anacostia and Congress Heights. Stephenson opened the first market in May 2019 in the Anacostia Community Center, where she hired Calvin Ferguson, who was homeless at the time, to help her operate the store. 

Calvin Ferguson. (Photo by Ayah Mahana)

“Amanda, to me, is like the sister I never had,” Ferguson said. “I was homeless before this and she helped me get an apartment and a lot of other great things. That’s why I’m still here with her today.”

(Photo by Ayah Mahana)

Ferguson, who has lost two family members to food-related diseases, said that Stephenson’s work to make clean and healthy foods accessible is necessary for the wellbeing of D.C. residents — especially those east of the Anacostia river. 

The lack of access to fresh food often stems largely from residents’ income, which averages at $31,954 annually in Ward 8, and an overall absence of grocery stores in the area. 

Of the 49 full-service grocery stores in the District of Columbia, only one is located in Ward 8. However, just north of Ward 8, Ward 6 (where the median household income sits at $121,874) has 14 full service grocery stores. 

In his time working with Stephenson, Ferguson said he has learned about many different cultural and health foods such as jollof rice and sea moss, and has shown his own family the ways in which they can care for their nutritional wellbeing. He said he believes there should be more markets like the Fresh Food Factory. 

“We need more stores like this in Washington,” Ferguson said. “And that’s all over: Ward 8, Ward 7, Ward 6. We need it. I mean, people need to eat healthy to stay strong.” 

Ferguson said he thinks there would be “chaos” if the market did not exist because of the crucial need for nutrition and quality foods in Southeast, D.C. He said the issue of food accessibility and deserts in Ward 8 has made clean food difficult to find. 

“We have a Giant and a Safeway here and there are rumors that they’re trying to close them down,” Ferguson said.

The Giant, located at 1535 Alabama Ave. in Southeast, D.C., is the only full service grocery store in Ward 8, but Ward 8 residents frequently travel to the Safeway in Ward 7 as well.

Due to reports of retail theft at the store last summer, the Giant faced challenges in operating, ultimately leading to threats of closing down completely. This would not be unprecedented, as the Good Food Market in Ward 8’s Bellevue neighborhood closed in November 2022.

Stephenson said that food insecurity has become a growing concern especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes that Fresh Food Factory can continue to contribute to alleviating the stress “food apartheid” places on the D.C. community.

“The food disparities are significant,” Stephenson said. “More so in some areas than others and food has been used as a weapon.”

Stephenson explaining the many cultural foods and snacks offered in her market. (Photo by Ayah Mahana)

She said one way Fresh Food Factory helps combat food apartheid is by hosting training programs for youth and adults called Feed Ward 8. Ranging from lessons on entrepreneurship, to urban agriculture and nutrition wellness, the program aims to teach residents ways to prioritize their health and understand food as a source of medicine and income.

“We do a lot in the school setting and creating a pathway to the workforce and pathway to college through foods,” Stephenson said. “And we work with some government agencies and talk about food and sustainability and different things that people could actually use to change their life trajectory or their family trajectory because they’re able to make an income from it.”

Stephenson said her father’s perseverance is what drives her to continue teaching others about the importance of clean food and nutrition. 

“I see the difference between reasons and excuses,” Stephenson said. “And it’s something that I try to push people who are in the program to think about, like my father… he was blind. He had gout. He developed cancer, but he advanced by 18 years, and it was through faith that he was able to actually see the change that he wanted to come into fruition. So we don’t have reasons not to do so.”

Stephenson said sustainable operating processes are an important part of Fresh Food Factory. She said they intentionally try to buy and sell products in bulk to limit the amount of packaging that is used.

The stores salvage whatever food can be reused both in the venues themselves and in the surrounding community.

“We donate food every week to people in need,” Stephenson said, “so we’re able to help them and their families not just have food, but have better food.”

Stephenson said her stores also work to minimize food waste by composting when possible, donating certain foods for animal consumption, and salvaging whatever can be reused.

According to Stephenson, Fresh Food Factory has plans to open two more locations in 2024, one in D.C. and one in Baltimore, MD. She said the future of the Fresh Food Factory is “healthy” and looks forward to increasing access to fresh food for people in the DMV.

“It’s amazing to see and, now, my father leaves a legacy,” Stephenson said. “And to leave that legacy to my children and not just mine, but other people’s kids, that’s a benefit to me. It just shows how one person can actually start a movement and really impact the nation.”

Commons in Congress Heights where newest Fresh Food Factory Market is located. (Photo by Ayah Mahana)

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