Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

In DC, not all neighborhoods are created equal when it comes to access to food. In fact, one in seven DC residents are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Most of those who are food insecure in DC are African American residents living in Wards 7 or 8.

One of the biggest reasons for this? There are only three full-service grocery stores for more than 148,000 people in Wards 7 and 8 combined. Ward 3, in comparison, has nine full-service grocery stores for its 80,000 residents. That lack of fresh, healthy, and affordable food east of the river has created what experts call the ‘grocery store gap’.​​​​​​

The grocery store gap has huge health implications

For many Ward 8 residents, a two-mile walk or 40-minute bus ride to the nearest grocery store is routine. The Congress Heights Giant is the only grocery store for more than 79,000 people living in Ward 8. For the 17 percent of residents who have a disability and the 47 percent who have no access to a personal vehicle, shopping for healthy, affordable food is a huge challenge.

The situation is similarly dire in Ward 7, where there are only two Safeways serving 74,000 residents. Not only that, but many residents note those stores provide inadequate service and poor food quality.

This grocery store gap has huge implications for the wellbeing of individuals and for the city more broadly. DC neighborhoods with the least access to fresh food also have higher rates of diet-related diseases.

People who live in Ward 8 are five times more likely to die from diabetes than residents who live in Ward 3. These same neighborhoods also have the lowest income levels and the highest percentage of black residents in the city.​​

Residents are taking matters into their own hands

The grocery gap reflects how city policies and business practices have chronically under-invested in poor communities and communities of color. Since 2010, six new grocery stores were built in Ward 6, primarily in booming neighborhoods like the H Street corridor, NoMa and Navy Yard. The city must also invest in communities east of the river.

This coming Saturday, October 14th, hundreds of people are planning to participate in the Grocery Walk to call for city investment in healthy food access for all. Councilmembers Trayon White and Vincent Gray, Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, and local activists and residents will walk to downtown Anacostia from the nearest grocery store in Congress Heights, a Giant two miles away.

As DC Greens’ Volunteer Coordinator, I work closely with Ward 7 and 8 residents who volunteer for the Produce Plus Program. By distributing checks to income-eligible DC residents, our volunteers make sure their communities can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at DC farmers’ markets. Our program is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't fill the gap left by the dearth of grocery stores, which offer a wider array of foods and are open longer and more often than farmers' markets. We need the city to share our commitment to helping our neighbors access fresh food.

The lack of access to fresh, healthy foods east of the river is a public health issue, a human rights issue, and a racial justice issue.  We’re asking our elected officials to maintain solutions that are working, fix the ones that aren’t, and put the city’s money where its mouths are through the initiatives below:

Amend the FEED DC Act, which offers tax breaks to incentivize grocery stores to come to low-income neighborhoodsto better support the development of small- and medium-sized grocers and grocery cooperatives in Wards 7 and 8. In the ten years since the FEED DC ACT passed, new grocery stores have used these grants and loans to open up in wealthier neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Shaw, while the number of grocery stores east of the river has actually declined.

Create a recurring fund in the city budget to fund food justice solutions. Financial support for food access programs fluctuates annually, with as little as $0 included in the Mayor’s budget in 2016. Unreliable and tenuous funding makes it difficult for local non-profits to address the issue, and leaves residents with little security for accessing fresh food. In an increasingly wealthy city, it is a basic responsibility of the city to prioritize funds for food annually so residents can rely on the programs that help feed their families.

Reduce barriers to federal nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC. DC is one of only seven states that does not allow people to sign up for SNAP online. In Wards 7 and 8, very few pharmacies and zero corner stores accept WIC—a food benefit that low-income pregnant people and parents of infants can get to purchase formula and healthy foods—despite that fact that half of DC's WIC recipients live in Wards 7 and 8.

Maintain funding for local programs that increase access to fresh food, such as Produce Plus, Healthy Corners, Joyful Markets, Medically Tailored meals, and nutrition programs for homeless shelters.

If you’re interested in supporting efforts to expand access to affordable and quality food in Wards 7 and 8, please join us this Saturday at the Grocery Walk or visit our website to learn more about ongoing local food justice initiatives.
 

Mary Alice Reilly is a seasoned food justice program coordinator who has worked on community-based projects in Rhode Island, the greater Boston area, and in DC. When she's not thinking about supporting marginalized communities to actualize a more just and equitable world, she is creating art and community with her dear friends.