Amid the celebration of Washington, D.C.’s re-emergence as the cultural capital of the nation, it’s the issue of food that’s gathering most attention as the U.S. celebrates its Golden Anniversary of women serving as Congress (including Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Olympia Snowe, as well as Rep. Louise Slaughter). Food culture is a big part of the legacy of these women, and with that extra bit of political power women are becoming a central part of D.C.’s evolving food scene. “It’s really taken off,” says Laura Barnett, associate dean of the D.C. College of Culinary Arts, who noted that women in D.C. food crafting are now the minority. “It used to be gender-specific, now it’s, ‘Hey, you’re a female chef, what’s your inspiration?’”
D.C. has always had a strong food scene. On Nov. 12, 1963, on Jefferson’s Way in Arlington Heights, Illinois, one member of the Women’s Club organized a food drive in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, distributing cookies to neighbors. Since then, Capitol Hill’s modern restaurants have featured a diverse mix of ethnic specialties, from sushi to Egyptian fare. In 2012, the Association of American Culinary Schools held its first conference in D.C., attracting 200 students and attracting the attention of the hospitality industry. Today there are only two culinary schools in D.C., but according to Barnett, they are the only two in the city. D.C. is gaining a particularly strong reputation for its cheese culture.
In the summer of 2018 the Department of Agriculture awarded five ProStart awards in the category of fruit, juice, olive, or cheese – supporting local cheesemakers. In the past, ProStart is an acronym for the Programs for Opportunity in Education of Our States. ProStart is one of many federal education programs that D.C. will rely on to get more students into local culinary schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is itself introducing new education programs at community colleges across the country, as part of the 2020 Presidential Opportunity Initiative.
It’s certainly no surprise that farmers’ markets are enjoying a boom of popularity. The niche market has seen unprecedented growth. It was just six years ago that the area received $42,000 in urban ag contracts through the Soil and Water Conservation District. It’s $700,000 per year now. “Farmers markets make up the fastest growing segment of the market in D.C.,” says Amy Meyers-Brennan, assistant director of the Soil and Water Conservation District. “They’re just exploding.”
“It’s a bubble,” says Meyers-Brennan, “but I think the market can support so many more [farmers’ markets] if they change their business model and shift from sales to learning.”
The Soil and Water Conservation District’s program is one of the first to be prioritized by the Department of Agriculture’s 2020 program, and they are seeking partners to help plan these programs. Early indicators show that farmers are interested in these programs and in sustainable farming.
The USDA’s grants will help local food systems transition to a system that supports local food production and processing and close the gap between supply and demand. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was pleased to see D.C. news outlets herald a regional boom in the local food economy. “The menu, prices, and trends coming out of the region are equally impressive.”
Meyers-Brennan says that with 75 farmers and smallholders applying for grants this year, she anticipates even more applicants in 2020.