Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Ride-sharing company Lyft is teaming up with Martha’s Table to help residents living in D.C.’s biggest food deserts access groceries. The six-month pilot program kicking off in January will allow select Ward 7 and 8 families to pay a $2.50 flat fee for shared rides to and from the three full-service grocery stores east of the river, plus the lobby market at Martha’s Table located at 2375 Elvans Road SE. There are two Safeways (322 40th St. NE and 2845 Alabama Ave. SE) and one Giant (1535 Alabama Ave. SE). 

Lyft and Martha’s Table will identify 500 families to participate in the initial “Lyft Grocery Access” program. Each family must have a child enrolled at one of seven elementary schools in order to qualify: Anne Beers Elementary School, Garfield Elementary School, Moten Elementary School, Rocketship Rise Academy, Savoy Elementary School, Stanton Elementary School, and Turner Elementary School. Families with children participating in educational programs through Martha’s Table are also eligible.

Martha’s Table is a nonprofit that’s been working to increase access to healthy food in the District since 1980. “We believe that access to healthy food is a basic human right and everyone regardless of zip code deserves it,” says Caron Gremont, the organization’s senior director of health and wellness initiatives. “East of the river, they don’t have the same opportunities as the rest of residents do in D.C. It’s just wrong.” She calls the Lyft partnership an innovative way for the private sector to be part of the solution.

Together with Capital Area Food Bank, Martha’s Table has been operating Joyful Food Markets at Ward 7 and Ward 8 elementary schools since 2015. Families can visit once a month and shop for up to 15 pounds of food—mostly fruits and vegetables. The success of the Joyful Food Markets is what prompted Lyft to tether its program to seven of the 53 participating schools.

“Our data continues to show us that the vast majority of [Joyful Food Market] shoppers cook at least five nights a week and they like to cook, which is why overcoming access makes everything else so much easier,” Gremont says. “Their expertise is logistics, getting people where they need to be.”

Each selected family will be allowed to take 50 shared rides for $2.50 each from Jan. 1 through June 30, making $125 the total monthly cost for a family to participate. Metro charges a $2 fare for each leg of a standard or regular route, making the cost of a shared Lyft through this program 50 cents extra for the convenience of more direct and shorter routes.

“Ward 8 is beautiful,” Gremont says. “You’ve got amazing views. That means you have a lot of hills. It’s hard to walk around here, especially into the colder months … I can’t imagine having to walk with groceries and my kids to a bus stop when it’s snowing or raining or slippery. It’s a real impediment.”

Lyft Mid-Atlantic General Manager Steve Taylor confirms his company is subsidizing the cost of the rides so drivers earn a standard rate. “We wanted to find a way for residents to have reliable access to fresh and healthy options for their family by reducing the time, transportation barriers, and the financial burden that comes with grocery shopping in these neighborhoods,” he says. “We think this is just the beginning, and we hope to continue to engage in D.C.’s food ecosystem beyond this pilot program.”

With only three stores serving a combined population of close to 160,000 people in Wards 7 and 8, a significant number of residents can’t conveniently shop. The D.C. Policy Center characterizes food deserts as areas where most households don’t have access to a car, don’t live within a half mile from a grocery store, and have a median household income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four ($44,995 as of 2015). According to 2016 Census data, Ward 7’s median income is $38,559 and Ward 8’s is $31,139. 

Those interested in joining the program can apply here. Registration is on a first come, first served basis. Registration will remain open until 500 families are enrolled.