An attendee at Saturday’s Grocery Walk carries a sign saying, “Close the Grocery Store Gap.” Image by the author.

This past Saturday, October 14, DC residents staged a walk to Downtown Anacostia from the Giant on Alabama Avenue SE, which is Ward 8’s only full-service grocery store.

The 45-minute walk was organized by a coalition of local activist groups to bring attention to the “grocery store gap” between relatively affluent and predominantly white parts of the city like Ward 3 and lower-income, heavily racial minority areas like Wards 7 and 8. The former has nine full-service grocery stores, while the latter two–with their combined population of nearly 150,000 people–have just three full-service grocery stores between them.

Dave attended the Walk and talked to participants about how the grocery store gap has affected them, and what can be done about it.

Activists march to the Safeway.  Image by the author.

The grocery gap is not just about the number of grocery stores, it’s also about the quality of those stores

Nakkia M., a Ward 7 resident who attended the Walk, noted that distance wasn’t the issue for her, saying, “I'm about five minutes from a grocery store.” However, she says she shops at farmers markets when she can instead, “just because you can’t guarantee fresh produce at Safeway.” Nakkia noted that the store was “the Safeway that sold the bad meat.”

Back in August 2017, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray conducted a surprise inspection of the store. He encountered long lines, poor service, and rotten food including moldy produce and spoiled steak. In the face of the ensuing negative publicity, Safeway pledged to do better–although Gray himself was skeptical.

Councilmember (At-Large) Elissa Silverman, who was also present at the Grocery Walk, said Gray’s exposé had an impact. “I've been in the Safeway on Minnesota before and after, and there's a tremendous difference,” Silverman said.

Customers are responding to the recent improvements. “I was in the Safeway the day after they redid it and everyone was in there [saying] ‘Look how great the vegetables look!’ People buy things when they’re fresh and looking good."

Councilmember Trayon White speaks at the Grocery Walk. Image by the author.

Past efforts to encourage more grocery stores east of the Anacostia River have often come up short

When Mary Alice Reilly of DC Greens, one of the cosponsors of the Walk, wrote about the event for GGWash, commenters pointed out that the lack of grocery options in Wards 7 and 8 is not a new problem. Some suggested that different patterns of development, rather than differences in race and class, were more likely explanations.

However, this argument doesn’t hold water. While it’s true that parts of Wards 7 and 8 are less dense and more auto-centric than the center of the city, the same is also true of Ward 3, as this map shows. Yet Ward 3 still has three times as many grocery stores as Wards 7 and 8 combined.

Other commenters noted that grocery stores have often struggled east of the Anacostia River, even when backed by the District government. A Yes! Organic Market in Fairlawn, in Southeast DC, opened with the support of $900,000 in grants in 2010, only to close two years later.

Owner Gary Cha and DC officials attributed the store's failure to unique issues with the store’s location, rather than a lack of interest from neighborhood residents. Indeed, many go out of their way to travel to other parts of the city to shop at stores carrying fresh, high-quality produce.

Leaders are hoping that this time will be different

Councilmember Silverman is a resident of Capitol Hill, and she says she witnesses a mass exodus of shoppers from east of the Anacostia River every week.

“If you go to the Harris Teeter at Potomac Ave on a Sunday morning, you see half of Ward 8 over there, and it's because they feel the Giant in their own neighborhood doesn't give them the choices and the options as consumers that they want,” Silverman says.

She believes that collective action on the part of the citizens of Wards 7 and 8 can put pressure on retailers to expand and improve grocery options by demonstrating “that this is a market over here, there are over 150,000 residents with a lot of purchasing power that [retailers] shouldn't ignore.”

Community members joined activists as they marched for improved food access in Wards 7 and 8. Image by the author.

Farmers markets offer one alternative to full-service grocery stores, and this map compiled by The Washington Post shows that there are 15 farmers markets east of the Anacostia River. However, they may not be a convenient option for all consumers. In addition, most farmers markets in the District are open just one day a week for only a few hours, and many close up shop during the winter.

Silverman emphasized that the Council needs to make promoting grocery options a priority by including funding for grocery stores in the District’s budget. Councilmember Mary Cheh of Ward 3 has proposed legislation doing just that.

Referring to the proposal to subsidize parking at the Ward 5 Union Market development to the tune of $36 million, Silverman said, “I think if you asked residents of Ward 5...I think most voters would say ‘We want grocery stores and healthier food options, and you know what? The developers at Union Market can fund some parking themselves.’”

Beyond securing additional funding for grocery store development, activists want to boost existing healthy food programs.

Reilly, the DC Greens Volunteer Coordinator who wrote about the Grocery Walk, suggested that the District reduce barriers to federal nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC, such as increasing the types of places that accept these benefits and allowing clients to sign up online. She also wants the District to increase funding for local programs that bolster access to fresh food, such as Produce Plus, Healthy Corners, and others.

Local politicians and activists speak out at the Grocery Walk. Image by the author.

New grocery options are already in the works east of the Anacostia River

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who also attended the Walk, was optimistic that the combination of top-down policy changes and bottom-up activism would bring results. He said grocery stores may soon open at MLK Gateway and South Capitol Street, while community co-ops are continuing to expand.

One such establishment, the Community Grocery Co-Op, is looking to set up a physical location east of the Anacostia River. They describe their vision of a co-op as “a store which is owned and controlled by individuals within a community or collaborative rather than a single store-owner or corporate entity” in order to keep wages high and prices low.

Since co-ops are not run for profit, they may be more likely to remain in areas like Wards 7 and 8, which have proved to be challenging markets for traditional for-profit grocery stores. The co-op structure also gives members a say in how the store is run.

“We've already starting moving and [we councilmembers are] making sure we can put our money where our mouth is,” White said.

Yesterday, as part of her bid to attract Amazon's second headquarters, Mayor Murial Bowser announced two awardees from the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund who pledged to improve access to groceries to Wards 7 and 8.

LDP Holdings' Penn Hill project in Southeast, which will include a grocer, was awarded $2.1 million. The second awardee is South Capitol Improvement LLC in Southwest, which was granted $880,000 for its South Capitol Affordable Housing project that includes a grocer tenant and Good Food Markets. South Capitol will also be partnering with a Ward 8-based community group to bring fresh food to the area. 

What do you think the District should do to improve access to groceries in Wards 7 and 8? 

Sam Norton is a freelance writer, consultant, and tutor. He is interested in local issues in the DC area, as well as national politics. He lives near Tenleytown.

Dave Johnson visualizes data for TIME as a newsroom developer. He recently moved to Anacostia to be near his church community there, and has since gained interest in local politics and equitable real estate development.