Ashleigh Mitchell, the manager of Washington Parks and People’s Riverside Center and Marvin Gaye Greening Center. Image by the author.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the lack of grocery stores in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in DC in the past few years. But it hasn’t always been this way, and there are a lot of people working to ensure their neighborhoods have access to high-quality, affordable food again.

Before the 1960s, the Deanwood neighborhood had more than a dozen grocery stores, ranging from small black-owned businesses and Jewish-run stores and co-operatives to chain supermarkets. They provided fresh meat, produce, and other goods to supplement what Deanwood residents grew themselves in gardens and farms.

Map reprinted from DC Policy Center: “Grocery stores operating in Deanwood between 1925 and 1960. This map was created based on stores that were reported in the Overbeck oral history interviews and those collected in an online database called Groceteria.” Used with permission by map creator Emeline Renz (@mapgrrl)

Today, Ward 7 and Ward 8 combined have just three full-service grocery stores for their nearly 148,000 residents. A common term used to describe this food landscape is a “food desert,” an area where, according to the USDA, “people have limited access to healthy and affordable food.”

However, this term fails to capture the structural forces and policies that enable food deserts, as well as the resiliency of residents who live in these areas. There are a lot of local food entrepreneurs and organizations working to improve this food landscape.

Why aren’t there enough grocery stores?

Dr. Ashante Reese, anthropologist and author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, DC, says that major structural shifts starting in the 1950s shaped the landscape of food access in the city. Middle-class white and black families were moving out amidst narratives about the “death of cities” shaped by government disinvestment, riots and uprisings, and fears of violence.

“[Between] 1972 and 1984, DC lost about 35% of its supermarkets from the city, despite companies like Safeway making this very public commitment to staying in inner city areas,” says Reese, at a book talk organized by the Anacostia Community Museum. Black neighborhoods were most affected during these decades. For instance, Wards 1 and 2 actually saw an increase in supermarkets between 1972 and 1984, says Reese.

But everyone needs to eat, so why don’t grocery stores set up shop wherever there’s need? Reese says that even popular grocery stores like Trader Joe’s use demographic indicators such as residents’ level of college education in their decisions about where to open new stores. This strategy tends to disproportionately harm communities of color.

Today there’s a persisting lack of food access in Wards 7 and 8, from grocery stores to sit-down restaurants, and it affects people in myriad ways. For example, residents are forced to spend more time and money traveling to get food, which can pose a real burden those with limited mobility or resources.

Just last year a coalition of activist groups organized a Grocery Walk to highlight the persisting lack of quality, accessible food options as well as ways to address the problem. They’re not the only ones working to improve food access.

Making farmers markets accessible

Several farmers markets, which sell produce grown by local urban farms, serve Ward 7 and Ward 8. Many also have a weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where residents pre-order an entire season’s worth of produce and pick it up weekly during the growing season.

Izzy Moody, Market Associate (left) and Ivie Baker, Market Manager (right) at the Arcadia Mobile Market near the Deanwood Recreation Center. Image by the author.

Groups running farmers markets include Arcadia Foods, Community Foodworks, DC Urban Greens, Dreaming Out Loud, University of the District of Columbia’s East Capitol Farm, and the Congress Heights residents behind the Ward 8 Farmers Market. All these farmers markets are open to the public and accept federal subsidized programs like SNAP/EBT (formerly “Food Stamps”), Women, Infant and Children (WIC), and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers.

Markets run by Arcadia Foods’ Mobile Markets and Community Foodworks in partnership with FRESHFARM also offer a “DC Fresh Match” program (formerly called “Bonus Bucks”), which doubles the purchasing value of these federal benefits. If you swipe your EBT for $5, the DC Fresh Match program allows you to get $10 worth of goods. More than 300 residents line up at Community Foodworks’ Minnesota Avenue market location alone to maximize federal and District programs, which regularly amounts to more than $1,700 in weekly sales for farmers.

Another program operating at some of the markets is the “Produce Plus” program, which provides a $10 “check” twice a week (up to $20/week to use at two different markets) to anyone with ID and proof that they’re on a federal program (like SNAP, WIC, TANF, SSI Disability, Medicaid, Medicare QMB). Produce Plus is first-come, first-serve at different markets.

Fresh food beyond farmers markets

Farmers markets and urban agriculture are vital, but many local organizations argue for other innovative and systemic approaches to food access too.

Riverside Healthy Living Center and its nearby farm, the Marvin Gaye Greening Center (both are run by Washington Parks and People), offer access to greenery, community spaces, education, and cooking classes. Riverside provides free lunches for kids over the summer, a video blog teaching young people how to cook, cooking demonstrations, and pop-up markets. It also provides advisory support to Freshe, a sit-down cafe located inside the Riverside Center.

“A lot of the programming is community-driven. Whatever the community asks for—if it’s possible and feasible—we try to do it. So we’ll do a lot of things that aren’t just about food insecurity and food injustice, but also meeting other basic needs of our communities,” says Ashleigh Mitchell, the manager of Washington Parks and People’s Riverside Center and Marvin Gaye Greening Center.

The Riverside Living Healthy Center with a Mother’s Day pop-up market organized by the Ward 7 Business Partnership. Freshe, a cafe that opened last year, sits inside the building. Image by the author.

Community Foodworks has been expanding its food distribution model through its “Pop Up Food Hub” program. It boosts demand and increases the profit margins for local farmers and vendors by connecting them with institutions like early childhood centers, senior residences, health clinics, and the YMCA, which are looking for high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables. Community Foodworks handles the purchasing orders (which explicitly does not require a minimum order) as well as deliveries.

“We recognized that it’s not just about the retail point of sale,” says Delila Boclin, Director of Programs and Strategy at Community Foodwork. “It’s about passing on wholesale savings…and creating partnerships where we’re meeting people where they are.”

Stephen Corbin of Community Foodworks loading up a truck with local high-quality fruits and vegetables for deliveries as part of their Pop Up Food Hub program.  Image by the author.

Towards equitable food policy and systemic change

A new Good Food Markets grocery store is slated to come to Bellevue in Ward 8 later this year, and the German grocery store Lidl is opening at Skyland Town Center in Ward 7 by the end of 2020. While people living east of the Anacostia generally welcome new grocery stores and initiatives to increase farmers markets and sit-down restaurants, many pointed out the importance of community-driven change, rather than top-down approaches.

“The grocery store is the end point of things, but there are so many different systems behind getting one item into that facility,” says Chris Bradshaw, founder and Executive Director of Dreaming Out Loud. He’s also co-chair of the DC Food Policy Council’s Urban Agriculture Working Group. “It’s about community ownership over stores and in different parts of the system, whether they’re cooperatively owned or residents [are] trained to open their own stores. They [need to] occupy different parts of the supply chain.”

This sense of local ownership drives groups like the Ward 7 Business Partnership (a DC Main Streets), Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif), and the Community Preservation Development Corporation, and Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), all of which are working to improve food access.

The biggest barrier to opening food-based businesses is paperwork and regulations, says Javier Sanchez, a Small Business Coach & Liaison with LEDC. He wants the DC Council to continue to work with community-based group to implement policies that support local entrepreneurs. There’s room for reform in other areas too.

DC passed a Cottage Food Law in 2013, which allows people to prepare food in their homes to sell at farmers markets and public events. But Brooke Fallon, Associate Director of Activism at the Institute for Justice, says, “the registration process is so complicated and the rules are so strict that we only know of a handful of entrepreneurs who have been able to successfully register since then. Now that DC’s cottage food law is finally in effect, it’s completely outdated and more restrictive than almost any state’s.”

A DC Urban Greens greenhouse. Image by the author.

In a “food desert,” one might assume that nothing grows. On the contrary, there are a lot of social entrepreneurs who are increasing food access, despite limited resources and historic and ongoing inequities.

“We have solutions right now, says Taboris Robinson, the Distribution Coordinator and urban farmer of DC Urban Greens. “Where you live determines your health. I would like for our programs to be recognized and funded by the government and other donors so that we can give the food back in the neighborhood.”

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and the Meyer Foundation.

ThienVinh Nguyen is an Urbanist Journalism Fellow with Greater Greater Washington. Vietnamese-born, California-grown, ThienVinh resides in the verdant neighborhood of Deanwood. She focuses on stories about civic engagement, urban development and planning issues that are simultaneously critical and hopeful. ThienVinh holds degrees from UCLA, Columbia University, and the University of London (UCL).