Stephanie Rudig
Stephanie Rudig

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Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Take two hypothetical District residents who need groceries. One lives in the Cascade Park Apartments in Southeast and doesn’t have access to a car. To reach the only full-service grocery store in her ward (a Giant in the Shops at Park Village), she walks 4.2 miles round trip.

The other lives in Union Row—a development on 14th Street NW in Ward 1. He can walk to YES! Organic Market, Streets Market and Cafe, Trader Joe’s, Smucker Farms, Whole Foods, Safeway, and Giant without going more than a mile.

Those working on food access equity in D.C. use words like “crime,” “absurdity,” and “injustice” to describe the disparity between Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River and the rest of the city. The USDA characterizes these low-income communities starved for places to purchase fresh produce as “food deserts.” And between 2010 and 2016, the situation only worsened.

In 2010, local organization D.C. Hunger Solutions released a “Grocery Gap” report showing Ward 7 had four full-service grocery stores for 73,856 residents and Ward 8 had three full-service grocery stores for 69,047 residents. Its latest data from 2016 reveal Ward 7 is down to two for all 70,064 residents and Ward 8 is down to one for all 78,686 residents.

Roughly one in seven households in the District is food insecure, the group says. Worse yet, 26.6 percent of D.C. households with children can’t afford enough food. A disproportionate number of these families live east of the river.

There was a brief flash of hope when Walmart announced it would open where Good Hope Road SE meets Alabama Avenue SE, but the company backed out a year ago citing profitability concerns. Many were angry; others were stirred to bring about change.

DC Greens executive director Lauren Shweder Biel says the Walmart pullout sharpened the issues surrounding the city’s food deserts and even catalyzed collaboration. “That moment became a call to arms for community organizers,” she says.

DC Greens and D.C. Hunger Solutions are two of many community groups unwilling to simply wait for full-service grocery stores to break ground and address the crisis. Instead, they’re collaborating to tackle a problem so complex that it calls for creative, multi-faceted solutions.

And what all these local initiatives share is a repudiation of backwards stereotypes that suggest the poor aren’t interested in fresh food. 

“Politicians across the country and citizens have been perniciously stereotyping, allowing cities to take no action because they’ve vilified low-income folks,” Biel says. “We’ve seen lines a hundred deep of people waiting in 100-degree weather to get $10 to spend on fruits and veggies. There’s lots of interest in healthy food, but healthy food does not exist in these neighborhoods.”

Indeed, food options east of the river are dominated by corner stores and carryouts because they are cheap to operate. At a carryout, food goes from freezer to fryer, requiring little labor and producing little waste. “This leads to extreme disparities in diet-related health outcomes,” says Philip Sambol, director of partnerships for Good Food Markets, which is planning a new location in Ward 8. “You can have obesity rates five times higher in wards without access to fresh food.”

Poor nutrition impacts mental and behavioral health too, says Calvin Smith, who chairs the Ward 8 Health Policy Council. “If you aren’t eating well, you can’t think well, and if you can’t think well, you can’t act well.”

Sambol says food deserts are a product of history. “That low-income residents have been segregated into certain areas is a sad legacy of our racist redline housing policies—the clustering of affordable housing and voucher residents in certain communities have created an economic ghetto. And the way we’ve segregated our society around class and income equates strongly to race in the U.S.”

Despite the obstacles—and there are many—most community organizers are optimistic.

“D.C. is way ahead of the game in a lot of ways,” says Sambol, who has worked on food access issues in three states. “It’s been slow, but folks who are working on this every day are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.” 

Citing the help of public officials such as Councilmembers Jack Evans, Robert White, and Trayon White—as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser—Biel says the city is working aggressively toward solutions. “Folks that typically haven’t been as active on food issues are really coming around, seeing this as something the city has the power to fix. More channels are being built so that marginalized voices are being heard.”

Several grassroots and governmental initiatives exemplify such work:

DC UrbanGreens 

DC UrbanGreens is a nonprofit that operates two urban farms—one in Ward 7 at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena and a second in Ward 8 in Fort Stanton. The produce grown across 84 beds primarily reaches Ward 7 and Ward 8 customers through the organization’s low-cost markets, which also accept vouchers, and through home delivery. The rest goes to partners like DC Central Kitchen and Good Food Markets.

Co-founder Julie Kirkwood identified the need to build relationships with high-end clients willing to pay top dollar to subsidize the group’s mission. That’s why DC UrbanGreens cemented a formal partnership this month with CityCenterDC’s Centrolina, owned by Chef Amy Brandwein. “The thing about Amy that’s so ideal is she’s on board with everything we do—an emotionally invested partner,” Kirkwood says.

Kirkwood, her staff, and Brandwein met on Jan. 11 so Brandwein could share her wish list for ingredients ranging from toy box tomatoes to turnip greens. “To be able to sit down and talk about what we’re going to grow is a chef’s dream, and to be doing it for the right reasons is over the top,” Brandwein says. The restaurant will showcase its new partnership at a spring harvest dinner in May. 

Kirkwood is thrilled to have Centrolina’s support and says Sweetgreen is also interested. “Some restaurants that wouldn’t open across the river because it wouldn’t be a wise business decision are finding other ways to help,” she says. 

Produce Plus

The Produce Plus Program provides D.C. residents who participate in federal assistance programs with $10 in vouchers twice a week that can be redeemed for produce at 55 area farmers markets. “We had 7,353 participants, the majority coming from Ward 7 and 8,” DC Greens’ Biel says of the program’s 2016 voucher numbers. Because some have families, the estimated reach of the program in 2016 was 18,000 to 20,000 people.

While DC Greens executes the program with the DC Department of Health, the work of partner organizations D.C. Farmers Market Collaborative and D.C. Hunger Solutions strengthen its impact. The latter works to enroll District residents in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which is still colloquially referred to as food stamps). As of Oct. 2016, 126,322 Washingtonians were enrolled.

Darrow Montgomery

Healthy Corners 

DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) operates a Healthy Corners program to bring fresh produce and healthy snacks to corner shops in low-income communities. Products are sold at wholesale prices, allowing store owners to pass savings onto customers. In fiscal year 2016, 74 corner stores participated (33 of them in Wards 7 and 8). 

DC Greens helps DCCK by using targeted outreach to let residents know about the program. Biel points to Grubb’s Pharmacy in Ward 8 (1800 Martin Luther King Jr Ave. SE) as a cause for hope, because owner Bill Fadel has decided to dramatically increase his display of fresh fruits and vegetables in response to community demand. 

DC Food Policy Council (DCFPC)

As part of its efforts to lure groceries to Wards 7 and 8, DCFPC is hoping to amend the 2010 FEED DC Act to boost supermarket incentives such as tax cuts and rebates. “We want to refocus the act to get more funding to those areas that have the greatest need, the highest poverty rates,” says director Laine Cidlowski.

Cidlowski says the group is also working to raise awareness about the Cottage Food Act, which allows entrepreneurs to launch small, home-based food businesses. Enterprises that bring in $25,000 or less in sales are exempt from the strict inspection standards required of bigger businesses.

Good Food Markets

Within the next two years, Anacostia in Ward 8 will get a Good Food Markets much like the one currently in the Woodridge area of Ward 5. It’s bound for the Menkiti Group’s MLK Gateway Community.

Good Food Markets is dedicated to developing retail solutions for food deserts, and its director of partnerships, Philip Sambol, thinks sprawling grocery stores aren’t always the answer. “The way the industry has developed over the last 75 years is you get the big enormous store or small bodega packed with processed foods, high-fat, high-salt snacks,” he says. “It doesn’t seem right—this two-party system doesn’t quite work.” His shops are somewhere in between.

Good Food Markets has a nonprofit arm called Oasis Community Partners, which provides job training, nutrition education, internships, and more. The outfit also has 33,000 square feet of land in D.C. and Maryland, where it will begin growing produce to sell this year. 

Sambol calls the forthcoming Ward 8 market a “social enterprise” grocery concept because it prioritizes social and cultural impacts alongside profit. “We may not be looking for a market-based solution here,” he says. “It’s much more social and cultural than economic, and we need to embrace that.” 

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