Ten Questions with Karen Washington, Co-owner of Rise & Root Farm

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016. 

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more. 

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen Washington, a farmer and Co-Owner of Rise and Root Farm, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Karen Washington (KW): The lack of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, and the lack of history and culture as we move farther away from our food source.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

KW: I used to believe that the food system was broken and needed fixing, but now I believe that it was never broken—that it was planned to exist this way. If you look at the way money is being spent in healthcare (hospitals, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies) and on food (big agriculture subsidies and government food programs), there is money being made on those who are sick and poor. 

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

KW: The resurgence of urban agriculture and seeing cities supporting growing food as a way to discuss and address health, economics, employment, and environmental issues.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

KW: I would say George Washington Carver. I visited his museum in Tuskegee and was blown away. Here was a great man who was a farmer, scientist, and inventor, but is rarely talked about in conversations around food. I vowed to always acknowledge his work and never forget what he gave to agriculture, not as a black man, but as an American hero.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

KW: Hunger and poverty. [It is] unacceptable that 14.5 percent of the population lives in poverty, which is over 43 million people. Yet we applaud and fight for millions of dollars to go into SNAP, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Can we stop applauding and see to it that those millions of dollars go into job trainings and business ownership?

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with?

KW: They knew where their food came from. At one time in the early 1900s, 40 percent [of people] lived on farms, now 2 percent do. We had 5 million farmers and 500 million acres of farmland, now only 2 million farmers. They did not have to deal with the onslaught of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, or obesity. If obesity rates stay consistent, 51 percent of the population will be obese by 2030.

Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Today there are 41 states with obesity rates over 25 percent, according to the Trust for America's Health.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

KW: All people have a right to healthy food and water. The problem is not lack of food, because we indeed have enough food to feed the world; the problem is how to get it to the people that need it the most.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

KW: Thank the person who feeds you every day, and maybe then we can appreciate the true value of food.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

KW: We need more farmers. The average age of a farmer is 57.5 and the numbers are decreasing. Farming must be a vocation whereby land is affordable and accessible and provides a steady income and living wage. Right now the National Young Farmers Coalition has presented to Congress to address student loan debt. Students invested in agriculture could have their debt lowered or forgiven.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

KW: Not to build the wall!!!! The next president needs to address the inflammatory rhetoric aimed at the immigrant population who, for the most part, are farm and factory workers. He or she can have that conversation [on] day one while stating their acceptance speech.

To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the livestream HERE.

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll's, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

Join the discussion using #FoodTank across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!

by Lani Furbank

Lani Furbank is a writer and photographer based in the DC metro area, where she covers the intersection of food, farming, and the environment for local and national publications. She studied broadcast journalism and environmental studies at James Madison University, and is passionate about supporting small-scale farms through mindful food choices and increasing access to nutritious food for communities around the world. Find her on social media: @lanifurbank