As Washingtonians residing East of the River suffer most from food and financial inequities, rumors that the Giant Food on Alabama Ave SE – the only full-service grocery stores in Ward 8 – could close, has set off alarming conversations across the city.
DC Greens, a local non-profit organization advancing health equity through a “just and resilient” food system, partners with that very same Giant, which also piloted their Produce Prescription (Rx) program in efforts to combat rising food insecurity in underserved communities.
The D.C. Policy Center conducted a series of reports on food insecurity issues across the District, citing that over 75% of food deserts amassed in Wards 7 and 8 alone, making up roughly 11% of D.C.’s total area equating to 6.5 square miles.
Researchers have made attempts at identifying food insecurity within the District, but, according to reports, most only consider proximity to grocery stores, an approach that excludes supermarkets (larger stores, like Walmart or Target, that sell non-grocery products).
Areas such as “historic Anacostia, Barry Farms, Mayfair, and Ivy City contain the majority of food deserts found in the city,” reports Randy Smith of the D.C. Policy Center.
Determined to foster change, DC Greens’ policy advocacy and coalition work across the city consistently advocates to bolster increased dollars around food access in the city budget, including greater SNAP benefits for residents in need. The organization also champions advocacy for school food initiatives, and even D.C. jail food reform.
“Something very unique is that we are the folks delivering. Our farmer Kenneth lives in Ward 8, we are implementing these programs, we are working with our participants and patients from across the city. We are doing the on-the-ground grassroots work, and also building coalitions including the people whose voices matter into these decisions, which I think can be lost sometimes when we think about larger scale policy,” said Luisa Furstenberg-Beckman, Director of Produce Rx at DC Greens.
Furstenberg-Beckman spearheads the organization’s program assisting eligible residents in accessing educational tools and financial support to sustain healthier food choices. The Produce Rx program provides monthly stipends for participants to purchase fresh produce from partnered grocery stores, while additionally pairing residents with medical professionals helping to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetable choices to those battling diet-related chronic illnesses in what they call the “food-is-medicine” approach to health and wellness.
“I think there is a misconception that people don’t want to eat well. People want the food that makes them feel good, nutritious food. There just isn’t access, one, geographically. Two-ish full-service grocery stores East of the River is not a lot,” Furstenberg-Beckman said. “So, there is the accessibility component but there is also the affordability, as we know, fresh food is always more expensive. So, people [often] have to decide between child care or fresh food. It’s a hard decision that isn’t fair for anyone to make.”
The Produce Rx program is just one of two major programs offered to help alleviate the region’s food desert.
DC Greens hosts an intergenerational space for community members to learn and implement essential resources for a healthy lifestyle with The Well at Oxon Run, an innovative urban farm and wellness space East of the River, growing an abundance of produce that is distributed to the community while offering wellness courses including yoga, gardening courses, and other holistic wellness opportunities.
Festus Sodimu, a Northeast resident and recipient of the DC Greens program, found out about the organization through Bread for The City. Currently having been a part of the program for the past five months, Sodimu’s children eat a lot of fruit, which has, in turn, helped his family’s health and weight issues due to healthier food options in better quality selections.
He explained that his family has benefited significantly from the monthly food stipends for fresh produce that his family can afford to keep in their refrigerator.
“We have more fruits in the house now. To be honest, it’s all expensive but most of us cannot afford to buy [all] organic, but now we have the option of getting organic because we have the assistance,” Sodimu said. “We can’t spend all of our money on buying organic because it is quite expensive, so we just have to mix the organic with normal groceries but we do buy more organic now.”