Photo by Wiedmaier on Flickr.

Please welcome Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau and a resident of Petworth. (Lynda’s posts are, of course, her own opinions and not official U.S. Census statements.) Welcome Lynda!

Grocery stores and supermarkets are many residents’ primary source of food. Having access to affordable sources of food has a major impact on our quality of life and public health. But while wealthy neighborhoods have an ample supply of supermarkets, in many parts of DC, grocery stores are few and far between.

The District of Columbia has 24 major grocery store chains and 10 smaller/regional food markets. There are 15 Safeways, three Whole Foods, six Giants, two Harris Teeters, six Yes! Organic Markets, one Super Fresh, and one Trader Joe’s. There are plans for an Ellwood Thompson in Columbia Heights and a Yes! Organic Market in Petworth.

As the map demonstrates, grocery stores are not evenly distributed across the District. Wards 2 and 3 have 16 grocery stores. That’s one store for every 8,911 residents. Ward 4 is the most populated ward (about 75,000 people), but only has one grocery store. There are only three grocery stores east of the river for residents of Wards 7 and 8. That’s one store for every 47,151 residents. Communities with large populations in poverty or large minority populations have poor access to grocery stores. Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8 are all majority African-American and all have large numbers of residents living in poverty, while wealthier, whiter Wards 2 and 3 have almost half the city’s grocery stores.

For low-income residents without a car, poor transit access to grocery stores is an immediate barrier to healthful eating. Sadly, inadequate access to grocery stores is not unique to DC. It is a common problem across urban areas, and cities and states haven’t done enough. A few states have taken some steps. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state contributed $30 million in seed money to lure grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. New York City recently passed legislation for up to 1,000 “green carts” to operate in certain areas of the city to sell fresh produce.

What kind of initiatives could DC take to ensure equal access to healthier (and affordable) food options? How can convenience store owners be convinced to carry more than Tasty Kakes and Utz potato chips? Could we change land-use policies to prioritize food? City officials and urban planners need to realize the important role they can play in ensuring access to healthy food and improving the quality of life for urban residents.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.