The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a pepper’s journey from farm to pantry says about American hunger

Kisha Marshall, director of culinary operations at D.C. Central Kitchen, rinses peppers from JK Community Farm. The peppers were picked by volunteers and donated by the Loudoun County farm. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
9 min

The poblano peppers were a deep green, with waxy skin that reflected the sunlight. They had grown in Loudoun County soil alongside 20,000 pepper plants of all varieties, from bells to jalapeños, and on this August morning, volunteers were piling them into green plastic bins. A cargo truck waited to haul them away.

Like the rest of the 230,000 pounds of fresh produce and protein produced this year at the JK Community Farm in Purcellville, Va., the delivery was heading not to a grocery store or a farmers market but to families in need.

Nearly one-third of the people in the Washington region struggled to access food last year, according to the Capital Area Food Bank, which distributed more than 64 million meals in 2021. That number was more than double 2019’s levels, and food providers say the increase in distributed food illustrates not simply that hunger has deepened in the region, but also that more families are coming to rely on food assistance as a regular supplement to their lives.

The journey of a single item of produce — say, a box of organic poblano peppers — illustrates the chain of effort and dedication involved in providing those meals, and how that effort is still not enough to meet the existing need.

As the last of the produce was loaded and the delivery truck rumbled away, Samantha Kuhn, the farm’s 29-year-old executive director, turned her attention back to her constantly churning 150-acre operation.

“We want farms like this all over,” Kuhn said. “There would be much more access to healthy food.”

1 out of 3 people in D.C. region face food insecurity, survey finds

Kuhn, who grew up in Fairfax as the fourth of nine children, was always interested in nutrition and medicine. She attended medical and science camps and thought that one day she’d become a pediatrician. She enrolled at the University of Tennessee as a pre-med student.

But a class her junior year changed her course. The professor encouraged students to “go do something that makes a difference,” Kuhn said, and handed them a list of community groups to explore. From that list, Kuhn worked on a farm in Knoxville that grew healthy fruits and vegetables for those in need, and people could work for the food being grown. It also donated a portion of the food to places that served the unhoused and the prison system. One day, Kuhn concluded, she wanted to launch her own farm to help others.

After graduation, she worked in stem cell research, but she kept coming back to the idea of the farm. For the next two to three years, she bugged her parents to help her start it. Her mother, Stacy Kuhn, grew up in a low-income household and understood the need. “Eventually, they got on board,” Kuhn said.

Her father, Chuck Kuhn, owns the Sterling-based moving company JK Moving Services, and in 2018 it donated a patch of property in western Loudoun County for the farm. The business got naming rights but is otherwise a separate organization, Samantha Kuhn said.

Today Kuhn has one other employee, Mike Smith, the general farm manager. Otherwise, the operation, funded through grants and corporate sponsorships, relies on about 4,500 volunteers each year for planting and harvesting, a setup that allows it to give away its complete harvest at no cost.

In this work, though it’s not pediatrician work, Kuhn sees some of the same priorities. Fresh food fosters healthy lifestyles, she believes, by preventing chronic diseases and providing low-incomes families with alternatives to processed food.

But Kuhn also believes in the dignity of choice. The farm sends out an annual survey to the households it serves to learn what kinds of produce they want.

Peppers are always the top request.

From farm to kitchen

An hour and a half after leaving the farm, the delivery truck backed toward the loading dock at D.C. Central Kitchen on Second Street in Northwest Washington, a few blocks from Union Station. Staff members quickly began carting off the green plastic bins of produce into the nonprofit’s kitchen, tucked in the basement of a homeless shelter.

“Oh, we got poblanos!” said Kisha Marshall, the director of culinary operations, as she surveyed the piles of produce entering the kitchen. She snapped one up and began to char it over a gas grill.

“We will roast them, blister them to get them nice and hot,” Marshall explained to production cook Navelle Garrett.

Surviving inflation, one plasma donation at a time

The kitchen was a hive of activity. Multiple meals were in the process of being assembled for delivery over the next few days. D.C. Central Kitchen takes donated food and transforms it into nutritional meals, which are then sent out to schools, shelters and nonprofits. Over the past year, it has provided 3.6 million meals with food from several sources, such as farms, a Franciscan monastery in Northeast and the USDA Farmers Market, said Melissa Gold, director of communications.

Marshall was now integrating the poblanos and other items from JK Community Farm into chicken fajitas plates that would be delivered in two days to 19 sites. The meals would serve 1,300 people.

Marshall, who handles the menu development and planning, has been at the nonprofit for a little more than a year. She was attracted to the kitchen’s mission, so much so that she left her position as a research and development chef with the legendary José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup.

“I fell in love with who they are,” Marshall said of D.C. Central Kitchen. “I just needed to be here.”

José Andrés is returning to the former Trump hotel

Marshall said she was able to take what she learned from working with Andrés about feeding masses of people and cooking sustainably and economically and bring it to the D.C. nonprofit. Andrés is the founder of World Central Kitchen, which deploys its operations around the world and provides thousands of chef-prepared meals to areas hit by natural disasters or mired in conflict.

“There is even a bigger need right here, right now,” she said, adding that she sees people on the streets eating food prepared at D.C. Central Kitchen. “There’s a gratification to know that people who couldn’t get a good meal are getting a good meal,” Marshall said.

Many of the kitchen workers have experienced food insecurity themselves. D.C. Central Kitchen has a 14-week culinary job training program and actively recruits participants from halfway homes, from homeless shelters, through the mayor’s office and case workers and elsewhere. For the past 30 years, it has helped more than 2,000 people kick-start their culinary careers, with about 70 people graduating from its training site in the past year, according to the nonprofit.

“This is definitely a second-, third-, fourth-chance place,” Gold said.

Garrett is one recent program graduate, and on the day the peppers arrived, she helped Marshall grill up test plates of fajitas, a process the kitchen staff would repeat over the next couple days. Before that Friday’s meal deliveries went out, they had to make sure it all worked.

From kitchen to people

The fajitas arrived in aluminum pans for lunch distribution at the Salvation Army Sherman Avenue Corps in Northwest Washington, where Christy Harris and others stood in the kitchen and divvied up the seasoned chicken, the peppers and onions, and the tortillas into a few to-go containers. Harris, an administrative assistant, numbered the lids with a marker to track how many people were served that day. Then she waited.

It was nearly 12:30 p.m., and for the next hour, lunch would be served. Bags of fruit, with two apples and two oranges, were also part of the meal, served every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“You come across a lot of families that are really, really down on their luck,” Harris said. “One woman had five kids, and their gas had been turned off. Another guy had a room, some kids but no food.”

D.C. had a plan to end chronic homelessness. Why isn’t it working yet?

Before covid-19, people could eat at a table inside the facility and socialize for a bit. But for the past two years, patrons have stayed outside, sometimes eating on a concrete step outside the building, often alone.

Joseph Hughes of Northwest Washington was the first to arrive. The soft-spoken 70-year-old said he has regularly come to the Salvation Army outpost for food the past two years and that the fajitas would be his lunch and dinner. But if he became hungry, his friends would “help me out with food, too.”

He sat down to eat outside the weathered red-brick Salvation Army building, which opened in 1966 at the corner of Sherman Avenue and Morton Street, an area that has seen an exodus of longtime residents and an influx of wealthier newcomers. All around him stood gleaming boutique-style condominium buildings and renovated rowhouses.

Jorome Benton, 42, has lived in the neighborhood his whole life. He arrived on his bicycle and said he frequently stops in for lunch. “It’s something to get through” the week, he said.

“I’ve come here since I was small, for food or to play basketball,” he said. “It helps everybody who don’t have something to eat.”

In D.C., seniors often struggle to find food

Benton was the second person to show up that day. By 12:45 p.m., four chicken fajita meals had been handed out. Three more people trickled in before lunch was over. The seventh was Andre H. Fields, 62, who said he’s also a regular at the Salvation Army facility, about a 10-minute walk from his house.

Fields said he started coming there for lunch while he was taking care of his mother full time, before she died last year. He’s been living off his savings and said he counts on the Salvation Army for about 60 percent of his food, for lunch and its twice-weekly food pantry.

“They give you a little bit of everything … a well-balanced diet that you can live on,” Fields said, and it was a diet brought together by many other lives, too. “You’ve got to eat your veggies.”