Assessing Community Needs: Food and Gardening School Programs in Washington, D.C.

Robert EconomouEmerson, Field, Updates

Above: Robbie Economou, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.

I’ve learned an essential lesson about nonprofits from Alex Boyd, my supervisor at Kid Power, Inc.: “Sometimes you’re so busy doing the work,” he says, “that you don’t have the time to think about what you’re doing.” With any non-profit organization, it’s absolutely essential that they work to meaningfully engage the communities that they serve, in a way that provides ownership and roles with genuine power and changemaking ability within the non-profits. However, it can be difficult for smaller non-profits to consistently garner feedback and include community members in meaningful ways, as most staff members are simply occupied doing the work they need to do to have the organization run effectively. For my field placement with Kid Power I have been conducting a community needs assessment for the VeggieTime program, bringing together community thoughts and feedback and helping Kid Power to continue to work as a community-based organization going forward.

Kid Power provides no-cost daytime, afterschool, and summer programming at six Title 1 public schools1 in Washington, D.C. — five elementary and one middle school — with an emphasis on building student leadership and encouraging students’ social and emotional learning. VeggieTime is one of Kid Power’s most prominent programs. Its purpose is to deliver food-based education to students, including lessons on gardening, cooking, the environment, food from specific cultures, and anything else relating to food. The community needs assessment I am working on will primarily collect feedback on VeggieTime, but I am also considering how it is interconnected with Kid Power’s other programs.

Running a school-based program is exceedingly difficult right now. COVID-19 continues to be an ever-present danger, especially at schools where kids are only now beginning to be able to be vaccinated. While most service organizations like Kid Power are doing in-school programs, many have had to scale them back in some ways. For example, Kid Power is not currently doing cooking lessons, and has put in place additional precautions around food distribution. Many schools and after-school programs are also facing massive staffing shortages and don’t have the personnel to effectively run their programs. I have seen this frequently across all of the different organizations and schools I have talked to, and it definitely has had a profound effect on Kid Power as well. Lastly, due to a change in systems at D.C. Public Schools, getting a security clearance to enter any public schools has been exceedingly difficult — it took me two months to get full permission to enter schools, while previously such access would have been granted in a few days.

While attending VeggieTime programs after school, I’ve been able to see how these difficulties have negatively impacted students and their ability to engage with the programs. The kids seem restless, and are simply tired of learning and trying to focus. There’s a widespread feeling of exhaustion that has spread from the adults in the rooms to the kids themselves. We can’t keep asking everyone to be at their best when they are facing a wide multitude of issues from the pandemic and staffing shortages — this goes not just for the schools and Kid Power staff, but also the students themselves. I am a strong believer that kids are more intelligent than our society will ever give them credit for, and I think they can tell pretty easily when the programs at their schools are struggling. VeggieTime at its core provides students the opportunity to engage with the natural world and creates a school program that isn’t solely based on academics where students can thrive — but it’s not able to do those things fully without further support. These schools need better infrastructure to work around the pandemic, as COVID rates are still soaring at many of them. Additionally, they need more financial means to pay teachers and other school staff higher wages and create stronger support systems in order to combat their high levels of attrition2.

It has been inspiring to see how Kid Power has continued to do its work, despite all of the difficulties it has encountered. The organization has constructed an outdoor classroom for teachers and Kid Power instructors to use, held several produce pop-ups across their different schools to share free produce with families and school staff, and consistently has come up with a variety of fun programs for kids — anything from planting their own seeds, to painting pictures with plants from the garden, to helping make apple cider with an apple cider press. I’ve also gotten to hear about wonderful programs from other D.C. nonprofits: how FoodPrints has taught incredible culturally-conscious cooking lessons, how Martha’s Table has hosted Joyful Food Markets at schools to provide produce and show off cooking skills, and how the Latin American Youth Center has connected D.C. youth with meaningful careers doing food education and garden work. Despite it all, these people that operate these programs find ways to keep working hard and making sure the kids they serve get the programs that they deserve.

My community needs assessment will not only allow me to gather thoughts and feedback from community members about Kid Power’s programs, but it will also allow me to offer recommendations on how to introduce new ways of engaging with the local community. Every community is different, and it’s essential to learn how each specific community wants to be engaged. With my placement at Kid Power, I feel that I am privileged to be able to tangibly help direct the future of VeggieTime through the recommendations and thoughts of the community members I have talked to. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to talk to a wide variety of stakeholders, including Kid Power staff, other food-based youth education organizations, teachers, school staff, and parents, about what they want out of the school gardens and the food-based education programs that VeggieTime offers.

I’m excited to create a formal report about my findings from the community needs assessment, and to work with Kid Power’s leadership throughout this month to create a formal “next steps” document that can be shared back with the community. I hope to be able to recommend ways that Kid Power can work to more intentionally include parents and school staff within VeggieTime programming, and structural ways to continue to collect feedback and establish meaningful participation with the community. I see my community needs assessment as just a small part of Kid Power’s continual efforts to best work with the communities that it serves.

  1. “Title I School Information.” District of Columbia Public Schools, 2021, []
  2. “Teacher and Principal Turnover in Public Schools in the District of Columbia.” State Board of Education of the District of Columbia, September 28, 2018,​sites/​default/​files/​dc/​sites/​sboe/​publication/​attachments/​SBOE%20Teacher%20Turnover%20Report%20-%20FINAL.pdf []

About the Authors

Economou headshot

Robert Economou

Emerson Fellow

Robbie grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in Sociology. While attending SUNY Geneseo Robbie served as co-chair of a student activist group called Food Security Advocates, where he educated fellow students about hunger on college campuses, created a food pantry delivery program for students during the covid-19 pandemic, and passed a college resolution to create an on-campus food pantry. In the summer of 2021, Robbie was a speaker for the New York State Food Summit to speak on a panel about college food insecurity. Robbie also served as an intern at the federal policy office for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, where he worked on policy briefs and conducted research to ensure that environmental policies considered the intersecting issues of racial justice, gender equity, and income inequality at all times.

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