by Stephanie Eyocko.
Photographed by Mariah Miranda.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, but activists, just like superheroes, have origin stories. Kya Parker’s starts at the Black Lives Matter protests back in May, when thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of her native Washington to protest the murder of George Floyd and countless other victims of police violence.
“I was walking around, and everything was boarded up,” she recalls. “No affordable resources, no access to anything.”
Parker, 25, showed up to what is now called “Black Lives Matter Plaza” outside the White House with two dozen tacos and a case of water. Within minutes, it was gone. Little did she know her tray of protest provisions would grow into a volunteer organization that feeds and clothes hundreds of Washingtonians each week.
“In my community, I’ve noticed a lot of hardship, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol abuse, a lot of things that keeps us down intentionally,” Parker recalled of her childhood in the Ivy City neighborhood of Northeast D.C. “A lot of carry outs, a lot of liquor stores, no fresh food and access to health or wellness or anything,”
Parker’s upbringing, combined with that crucible moment at BLM plaza, inspired her to found Kyanite Kitchen, a free community pantry that provides D.C.-area residents with groceries, meals, clothing, toiletries and much more.
“We are your best and favorite free community pantry, your around-the-way CVS,” she says, adding “where Chapstick is not under lock and key.”
AMERICAN FOOD INSECURITY
As of late June, one in six American households with children are food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
Overall, about 16 percent of American children did not get enough to eat sometimes or often, five times what it was in 2018.
The racial disparities are clear. 29 percent of Black [households with children] are food insecure. 24 percent of Hispanic households don’t have consistent food either, while the number is about 9 percent for White families.
The nation’s capital, the original “Chocolate City,” offers a stark reminder of how segregated food access can be in America. Predominantly white neighborhoods in the Northwest of the city have ample grocery store options, as do the newly gentrifying areas in the area around downtown and Capitol Hill.
But cross the Anacostia River to Wards 7 and 8 and the scenery changes completely.
The two wards are home to 160,000 people, 92 percent of whom are Black. In Ward 7, more than 26 percent of the population is below the poverty line — double the national average. In Ward 8, it’s even worse — 30 percent.
Both areas fit the description of a “food desert” from the USDA, a “low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”
SHOWING UP, SHOWING OUT
In the early days of Kyanite Kitchen, a volunteer offered her a donation of 100lbs of produce. She took that 100 pounds of produce and went to Minnesota Avenue (Ward 7), Anacostia Station (Ward 8) and Congress Heights (Ward 7).
“People loved it,” she said, “I was sold out immediately.”
The initial success got Parker wondering how she could do more, and her operation expanded over the next seven months.
On Tuesdays and Saturday, Kya Parker is up by 8am. She finishes cooking and reheats the 100 to 150 vegetarian meals she cooked the night before.
By 9:30, she’s out the door, headed to Target, Dollar Store, and Walmart to pick up winter clothing, hats and gloves for care packages, purchased with money from community donations usually from Instagram.
By 10:30 am, she is at the Kyanite meet-up spot, a set of loading docks behind the Northeast’s popular Union Market, an upscale eatery built in the gentrifying area near Gallaudet University.
The Union Market area is home to wholesalers that predate the chic new eateries and shops of what the city now calls the No-Ma neighborhood. One is Mexican Fruits LLC, a staple for area residents since 1999, where Parker purchases soon-to-expire vegetables and non-perishables to stuff her care packages.
By the afternoon, Parker and her team will have assembled groceries, hygiene supplies and other essentials into individual care packages. Then they fan out, stuffing volunteer vehicles full of food and clothing, headed to Metro stations and other high traffic areas to distribute their goods.
Parker’s grasp of the city’s many cultures helps her tailor her distribution. Her teams deliver rice, beans, and greens to neighborhoods like Columbia Heights that have a larger Latin population. In Trinidad and other predominantly Black neighborhoods, she delivers more chicken & milk, basic products, and ready-to-eat food.
When Kya began her operations, she had about two volunteers. Now, her unofficial team of volunteers have grown to about 100 people on Saturdays and 20 people on Tuesdays, where everyone is seen working diligently with face masks and hand gloves.
“All the organizations we’re involved with, we’re a tight knit community. It’s just a sense of, okay, you can’t do this, take your rest, take your break,” Parker said. “We’ll pick up the pieces. We’ll pick up the slack and we’ll pick up everything you need.”
On Saturdays, multiple mutual-aid organizations collaborate for an event known as “Feed the City. Participants come from organizations founded to support food access, like Everybody Eats, Fuel the People and the D.C. Fridge Collective. But it also includes other activists, like the environmentally focused Sunrise Movement.
“We’ve kind of created a community around giving back…” says Christen Whitaker, spear leader of DC Fridge Collective. “And it’s super authentic, it’s fluid, it’s not forced. If you want to join in any capacity, you can.”
“The way I know to connect with people…is through food.”Kya Parkers says.
Feeding and supporting the community gets to the heart of what Kyanite Kitchen is trying to do. Kyanite Kitchen hopes they can continue to grow and envision opening a food bank and incubator space, either in Ward 6 or 7. Finding a space has been a battle, with issues such as cost and hours restrictions coming up.
They were once at Union Kitchen — a Made in D.C food and beverage accelerator —but Kya said they had outgrown the space and needed a warehouse with a space, “where people can come eat, heal and grow.”
Though these issues as well as the woes of paper-pushing to becoming a non-profit are part of Kyanite’s Kitchen reality, Kya is confident the troubleshooting will no more in the days to come.
A few weeks back, a regular who has been coming to the produce giveaways since July told her that her A1Cs (average blood sugar) had decreased since coming to the produce giveaways and eating vegan meals prepared by Kya.
“When I give people the vegan food I make, it feels like I’m here accomplishing my soul mission, doing my soul work.”