About the artist - Sahara Clemons
About the Artist: Sahara Clemons

Every Friday since Charlottesville started responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rosa Key has been on Hardy Drive. “Come get a bag of groceries!” she hollers. Key knows most of the Black residents or their parents. “Oh, you’re Mary’s boy,” she says when a young man tells her his last name. 

Key, 64, grew up in Charlottesville, spending some of her youth in Albemarle and Nelson counties, but mostly in the city. Her aunt and uncle worked for J.F. Bell Funeral Home. Her daughter and grandson live in Westhaven. And ever since schools and businesses shut down, Key has helped the PB&J Fund and Charlottesville City Schools (CCS) distribute thousands of bags of food to residents here. She’s been involved in the city’s food justice movement for more than two decades and was a part of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (UACC) when it formed in 2007. Now she works as a Community Advocate for the Food Justice Network (FJN).

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Shantell Bingham, the program director of the Food Justice Network.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Shantell Bingham, FJN’s program director, lives down the street from Key. This is what food justice looks like, she said — having Black lifelong residents in positions of power and listening to them. Too often, local organizations are run by white people who, well-meaning though they may be, are not in touch with the communities they try to serve. When it comes to food, Bingham said, this can be perilous.

“Who holds the keys to the food holds the power of the people,” she said.  

In her life, Key has worked nearly every physically demanding job — carpentry, construction, heating and cooling repair, security, waiting tables, even a couple office jobs. At one point, she ran a small child care business, taking care of 15 kids, and in the 1980’s she worked at Venable Elementary School, preparing hundreds of meals for students. “We made everything from scratch,” she said. “Not like today, where they have all these canned foods and prepacked stuff.”

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Rosa Key, a community advocate with the Food Justice Network, hands out flowers with her grandson.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Several weeks ago, PB&J shifted from using one main distribution site in the center of Westhaven to delivering food directly to people’s front doors. It’s safer that way, and it means Key’s help is no longer needed. The next Friday though, as usual, Key drove up in the cream-colored 1993 GMC Sonoma — “Betsy” — she bought from a city auction, only instead of handing out groceries, she had a bed full of freshly cut peonies. 

“Want some flowers?” she asked everyone, even those driving by. She loves flowers — marigolds and zinnias the most. “Give them to your Mama!” she told people on the Friday before Mother’s Day.

Like her stepfather, Key’s always had a green thumb. In her front and side yards are dozens of potted plants — tomatoes, potatoes, collards — sprinkled throughout, like blueberries in a cobbler. On the new Cultivate Charlottesville’s website — the umbrella organization launched last month that combines the FJN, UACC and City Schoolyard Gardens (CSG) — there’s a quote of Key’s beneath her photo: “Food justice is about having access to your own land to grow food,” she said. “It’s about owning the food you grow and eat at all times.” 

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A plaque celebrating John West in the 10th and Page neighborhood.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

A block away from Key’s house is the city’s plaque commemorating the life of John West, an African American man born in 1850 to a mother enslaved by a white professor at the University of Virginia. West became one of the area’s wealthiest residents, buying and selling hundreds of properties in his lifetime, including Key’s. It’s one of many in the area that West sold to other Black families, slowly growing what’s now known as the historically Black 10th and Page neighborhood.

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The Dairy Central development, slated for completion in 2021.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

As affordable properties become more coveted and scarcer in the city, Key has seen more affluent, often white, residents move into her neighborhood. Two blocks away, the Dairy Central is on track to finish building 175 apartments by 2021 — 140 priced for people earning at least $65,755, and 35 for those making at least $52,600. Many long-term Black residents wonder, and worry, how these new residents will change their neighborhood. 

These are interconnected, Bingham said — food justice isn’t just about food. “Doing food justice, like, real food equity work — isn’t about giving people food at the end of the day,” she said. “That’s the charity mechanism that’s important for a social safety net. But the real work of food justice is building better education outcomes, and better wage opportunities. People have a right to self-determine their own access in our food system, in our healthcare system, in our housing community. People should be able to decide where they want to live. It shouldn’t be a choice they have to make because of the crappy wage they’re paid.”

 

“The type of stuff that makes my stomach turn”

Access to healthy and affordable foods — or food security — is an essential piece of the broader Social Determinants of Health, impacting everything from physical health and mental development, to one’s educational, financial and employment outcomes. In Charlottesville, before the pandemic, 1 in 6 residents, or about 7,350 people, had trouble getting or affording food, according to the nonprofit organization Feeding America. In Albemarle, about 1 in 10 residents experienced this food insecurity, or 9,520 people. That’s a total of about 16,870 people. 

As evidenced across the country, the pandemic has exacerbated nearly every existing pattern of inequity. By the end of March, the city’s Department of Social Services processed 137 more applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) than it had in 2019, and 27 more families applied for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In April, 300 more people applied for SNAP, 167 for Medicaid and 54 for TANF, according to Assistant Director Sue Moffett. In Albemarle, Director of Social Services Phyllis Savides said the department has processed more than 572 new SNAP applications and more than 68 new TANF applications since March 13. 

At our peak, [we] experienced a 382% increase in applications for a two-week period,” Savides said. 

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The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank's Charlottesville warehouse.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

By the end of April, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank had distributed 2.9 million pounds of food. As of this article’s publishing, the local Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry had given out more than 248,500 pounds of food to 10,000 people in 3,500 households. 

“Daily, I’m getting calls from people saying, ‘I’ve heard about you, can I come get food?’” said Executive Director Jane Colony Mills. “I think we’re seeing about 30% new households. I’ve gotten people from the service industry calling. Some people are incredibly uncomfortable because they’ve never had to do this before.”

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A Cville Community Cares team member distributes meals at Venable Elementary.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

All this is in addition to the thousands of grocery deliveries done by the Cville Community Cares team, the daily meals offered at the Haven, the Salvation Army, Keevil & Keevil, the weekly pick-ups at other area food pantries and scores of other food-related efforts. 

Yet, people are still going hungry, said Bingham. She’s heard about people going to area hospitals feeling faint, lightheaded or drowsy. 

“It’s the type of stuff that makes my stomach turn,” said Bingham, recalling some of the stories. “There’s food out there, but everyone’s getting to it quicker than they can. They may be disabled, they may not have a car to get them to where they need to be, they may not have heard the information soon enough.” 

And it’s not just hunger. Food insecurity frequently occurs as less healthy foods —  calorie-rich, and nutrient-deficient — are often more affordable and easier to get. And though they’re less nutritious, they’re more filling, so people with less money can stave off hunger for longer. But the cumulative effect of this can be catastrophic — high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, obesity — all of which occurs at disproportionately higher rates in African American communities, and all of which leaves people with weakened immune systems and more vulnerable to other illnesses and diseases, such as COVID-19

 

“You will still have to ask”

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Meal delivery coordination at Charlottesville High School.

Credit: Lorenzo Dickerson

Of the 4,340 students in the CCS system, about 2,470, or 57%, are enrolled in its free and reduced-cost meal program. These children come from lower-income households and depend on it for daily nutrition. Since schools shut down, CCS has delivered tens of thousands of meals — about 700 a day — to hundreds of the hardest hit families, and the PB&J Fund has distributed another 3,000 bags of food, or 48,000 meal servings, according to Executive Director Alex London-Gross. 

In Albemarle, officials initially designated six locations for meal delivery — the furthest south was Walton Middle School, about 15 minutes from the B.F. Yancey School Community Center, the former Esmont school that closed in 2017 and continues to be the community hub for hundreds of Black families in southern Albemarle. The following week, school officials added two new locations: Red Hill Elementary School and the Boys and Girls Club in Scottsville. Nearly three weeks after the first food deliveries began, Yancey was added as a location. 

“It started out in the white communities of Scottsville and Red Hill until there was a push,” recalled Peggy Scott, an Esmont resident. For years, Scott has worked at UVA’s Cancer Center, but recently she’s helped organize care for residents of color in Albemarle as part of the Health Equity and Access in Rural Regions working group focused on creating clear and powerful feedback channels to better ensure quality services for rural residents. “This group got together and continually emailed and called and begged, pleaded and finally their School Board representative and some others in the county were very helpful and made it happen at Yancey,” she said. “Now they have the biggest distribution location at Yancey.”

Phil Giaramita, strategic communications officer for the school system, said it was a matter of timing and logistics, and that officials moved as fast as they could to get immediate food delivery sites up and running, eventually expanding to respond to as many needs as possible.

“We knew some families might not be able to get to a site, so in all of our communications starting with March 15, we added a phone number that people could call if they were unable to get to a site,” said Giaramita. “Its purpose was to allow us to bring the food to their location or open a site closer to their location.”

For Scott though, this speaks to a deeper truth. Black people have always cared for one another — she points to the monthly Yancey Community Food Pantry that’s operated for more than two years and is now helping more than 100 people a month, or the long and rich heritage of Black community educators in Esmont stretching back more than a century — but when it comes to outside resources, they’re often the last to gain access, she said, especially those in rural areas, where many people remain cut off from urban-centered resources. This is by design, she said. 

“These people are in the same struggles they were in from the outset,” said Scott. “We may not be going around saying the word ‘master,’ but we are going around now saying, ‘Can I please get this resource?’ We’re still asking from the hands that took the helm and said, ‘You will not have ownership of this — you will still have to ask.’” 

 

“That’s a big deal to me”

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Credit: Sahara Clemons

In recent years, FJN, CSG, and UACC have chronicled the area’s many immediate local food inequities, namely affordable access to quality food. And great strides have come about: a massive Food Equity Initiative funded in-part by the city that coordinates dozens of food organizations, Black-run urban farms, schoolyard gardens, regular fresh produce delivery systems for people with the lowest incomes and highest health risks, and much more.

But, Bingham said, the term “food equity” is really just a euphemism for “food apartheid.” That is, a majority of the decision-makers in food systems are white. They have often directly or indirectly benefited from inequitable systems and have, willfully or ignorantly, helped perpetuate, or in some cases create, unjust food systems.

“White advocates can play a real critical role in shifting the narrative and decision-making power, because of where they sit,” said Bingham. “So when they start turning to people of color for advice and leadership in a way that’s not extractive or tokenized, because they understand that’s actually how you fix the problem, that’s a big deal to me.”

Last month, in this vein, a new partnership emerged between Cultivate’s FJN, Frontline Foods Charlottesville, and the World Central Kitchen (WCK), an international food distribution organization. Through WCK and Frontline, 11 of the 19 locally enrolled restaurants have been paid $290,000 to prepare and deliver 29,000 meals to first responders and frontline workers. Knowing that white-led networks traditionally steer resources towards their own communities, Cultivate’s FJN formed a steering committee to intentionally prioritize minority-owned restaurants. Currently enrolled are 10 white-owned restaurants and nine minority-owned — four Black, three Latino and two Asian.

Bingham thought, “This is great, but it’s not enough. What if CCS could also be enrolled as a meal provider?” 

Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimburses public schools $2-3 per meal under the free and reduced-price program. And school meal systems are often expected to be self-sustaining, meaning they have to try to keep themselves afloat with only these USDA reimbursements and full-price paying students. This limits how much money they can invest in the quality of meals, the wages for employees, and the dining experience for students.

“Everybody wants an amazing lunch program for their children,” Bingham said. “But the school system, like any system, has to make sacrifices. And sometimes being a supportive partner means understanding that and innovating new pathways.”

As proposed, over a six-week period, at $10 a meal, WCK would have reimbursed CCS nearly $250,000 — $175,000 more than the USDA reimbursements. Jeanette Abi-Nader, the executive director of Cultivate, has led City Schoolyard Gardens for the last seven years.

If we were able to be creative with the program and enroll CCS as a vendor, the influx of funds from this would have given the school system the chance to make significant investments in revamping their model to a place where they could potentially increase participation in the meal program and become self-sustaining in the future,” Abi-Nader said.

Neither WCK nor CCS returned requests for comment about why the proposed partnership didn’t work, but Frontline Foods Charlottesville’s co-founder John Kluge, who was instrumental in bringing WCK to Charlottesville and has worked closely with Bingham, said the WCK model is set up for restaurants only. WCK offered to pay restaurants to provide the kids with meals, he said, but the school system itself couldn’t be enrolled as a provider.

“Their model, which is very effective for the shorter term emergency work, isn’t designed to fix long-term issues,” said Kluge. “It’s designed to provide immediate food relief when communities are hurting. It’s not a replacement for systemic change. Our community’s going to need to be the one to carry the torch of equity on the other side of this crisis.”

Over the last 18 months, Bingham, Abi-Nader and others in Cultivate’s network have worked with CCS students to develop a five-year “Health School Foods” plan that focuses on students of color gaining access to healthy foods, improving supports for kitchen staff and equipment, sourcing foods and meals locally, centering the voices and choices of students in meal development and educating students about nutrition. 

“Why shouldn’t we be a city that provides free, healthy, locally-sourced meals to all of our students?” Abi-Nader said. “We have the community resources that could be invested to bridge the large disparities that are present in our student population and build food equity.”

That work, which focuses on amplifying the voices of those directly impacted, goes beyond just food. It involves figuring out ways for people to provide for themselves, which means addressing inequities in education systems, employment systems, health systems, transportation systems and housing systems, Bingham said.

“We’re looking at 400 years of policy and financial investment that went into creating inequities, so it’s not enough to organize, and have activities lined up — you really have to come up with creative regenerating financial models to complement that work. And that stuff, when I say it’s rare, it’s once-in-a-blue-moon that that type of investment comes around.”

And so, Bingham and many others are looking towards the rewrite of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, its zoning rules and strategic housing plan that is currently underway. 

“We need to have community voices in these documents,” she said. “At the end of the day, these are localized visions for what we want to develop in our community —  the rules of our environment, our land, our fabric, our space. These things are directly related and having voices of folks of color and low-wealth communities engaged in that is essential. This is how we’re going to do it.”