Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

If you have lived in DC for at least a few years, you many have been part of a neighborhood celebration when a flashy new grocery store opened its doors. You may have also heard about the “UnSafeway” on Capitol Hill (which no longer lives up to its nickname) or the recent grocery walk protesting food deserts in Anacostia.

Unfortunately, as these examples illustrate, not all areas are created equal when it comes to access to quality, accessible food and grocery stores.

Some DC residents have trouble accessing quality food

Grocery stores are a critical part of a neighborhood’s quality of life, but the disparities to access healthy food choices are startling across neighborhood lines in the district.

Despite being a city with a rapid rate of development, residents in concentrated pockets of DC struggle to access healthy, affordable food. Three quarters of these so-called “food deserts” — that is, areas with limited access to healthy foods — are located on the east side of the Anacostia River, in Wards 7 and 8.

Image by D.C. Policy Center used with permission.

Just last month, area residents staged a “grocery walk,” walking two miles from the Giant at Congress Heights to downtown Anacostia to illustrate just how far residents have to travel to access a grocery store. However, food deserts are not simply a matter of lacking stores, nor are they stand-alone problems.

A recent DC Policy Center report found that these deserts are deeply connected to poverty and access to transit. While most research on food deserts focuses only on proximity to a grocery store, this report also looked at household income and rates of car ownership to more accurately define how challenging accessing healthy food could be. The data indicates that there are 6.5 miles of food deserts in the city, and reiterated that limited access is densely concentrated in historic Anacostia, Barry Farms, Mayfair, and Ivy City.

The report also illustrated how poverty has compounding effects that make an already-vulnerable person more food-insecure.

For example, for an individual with a median income living a half mile away from a grocery store, the difficulty of walking groceries home can be overcome by hailing a taxi or a Lyft. For lower-income people, that transit option may simply be unaffordable, leaving them with few options for healthy food.

Here’s how Baltimore is addressing food deserts

This problem is not unique to DC. In fact, a quarter of our Baltimore neighbors live in a designated food desert. However, the city is taking the problem seriously.

A partnership between the city and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is hoping to galvanize policy change by creating 14 maps that break down food accessibility data by council district. Guided by these maps, the city has been offering tax credits to food retailers who open or renovate stores in or near food deserts.

Most recently, Governor Hogan signed House Bill 1492 into law, which authorizes the Department of Housing and Community Development to give out small loans to address food deserts. The law only went into effect at the end of September, but its passage underscores that policymakers at the state level see the need to address this issue.

The now-replaced Giant grocery store in Shaw. Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

While all policy change takes time to have an impact, we cannot assume that simply building grocery stores in underserved communities will address other underlying issues, such as poverty and unemployment.

To this end, the city formed the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI), a cross-agency collaboration intentionally bringing diverse expertise and community voices to the table, with food access as the foundation for a broader conversation about resident well-being.

Shortly after the city passed the tax incentives, BFPI worked to bring a new grocery store to 12,000 residents in an East Baltimore community, where there was previously only one corner store with fresh food. A new grocery store didn’t just mean affordable and healthy food options, BFPI also wanted more job opportunities for residents.

Forgoing a brick and mortar solution, BFPI launched the Virtual Supermarket Program to address food insecurity among disabled and older residents. This program allows residents to order groceries online and have them delivered for free to designated public housing, low-income senior housing, or local libraries on a weekly basis.

The city is also working with a local ShopRite to ensure that residents have access to healthy foods at affordable prices that they can pay for using cash, credit, or EBT/SNAP benefits.

The program has been so successful that earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture selected the Maryland to participate in a two-year pilot allowing food stamp recipients to purchase groceries through online retailers like Amazon and Safeway.

DC activists march through Anacostia, telling the city to close the "grocery store gap." Image by Sam Norton used with permission.

What can DC do?

Following DC’s grocery walk, Mayor Bowser announced a $3 million investment to bring more grocery options east of the Anacostia river. While this is a meaningful gesture, we need long-term solutions to ensure that residents, no matter their zip code, have the opportunity to lead a healthy life. That could mean incentivizing groceries stores to open locations in the areas most in need, or making it easier for residents to order groceries online.

As our policymakers become more engaged around this issue, we should take our cues from what is working in Baltimore. Our policies should similarly be driven by data, involve as much community input as possible, and focus on affordability to achieve real impact.

What other communities can we learn from?