Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray at a grocery store in Southeast (Courtesy of Gray's office)
Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray at a grocery store in Southeast (Courtesy of Gray's office)

First of a two-part series

As the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser move toward the review, debate and eventual approval of the FY 2021 Budget, residents have been encouraged to attend hearings, contact the council member representing their ward and make sure they express their concerns, needs and desires.

And while some of the issues bear similarities no matter where one may live in the District, some of the needs remain long-fulfilled with others continuing more like unfilled promises undergirded by that popular, sing-song slogan made famous by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.: “Keep Hope Alive.”

For those living in Wards 7 and 8, the hope that has been a dire need for the past several years, if not decades, has been increasing the number of full-service grocery stores to effectively accommodate their mostly-Black communities.

One council member says it’s not just “putting City dollars where the mayor’s and other council members’ mouths are,” but also ensuring that the food in those grocery stores are fresh and as varying in brands and offerings as are routinely available in the most affluent wards and communities in D.C.

“With the budget hearings going into full swing in March, citizens have an opportunity to stand up and have their voices heard,” said Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7). “I’ve already been speaking with ANCs from my ward. But if folks don’t speak up now, before the budget is approved, it’s easy to guess what will occur.”

At the top of Gray’s list: moving forward with addressing “food deserts” that have long-existed in Wards 7 and 8, particularly, if not exclusively in historically Black communities.

Decades ago, these neighborhoods had horse-drawn wagons that delivered meat, fish and vegetables to residents’ doorsteps. Many also had a milkman, while growing vegetables in backyard gardens and making wine from the fruit of their peach trees remained commonplace. Neighbors shared food across fence lines like tomatoes, squash and eggs. But those days and ways have long gone.

Gray reiterates the glaring differences between the City’s eight wards when it comes to full-service grocery stores.

“There are about 160,000 people in the two wards (7 and 8),” he said. “But just look at the numbers. Ward 1 has eight full-service grocery stores. The rest: Ward 2, seven; Ward 3, nine; Ward 4, five; Ward 5, seven; and Ward 6, 10. But in Wards East of the River, Ward 7 has two and Ward 8 has one.”

“There’s no question that there’s a paucity of the kinds of amenities in Wards 7 and 8 that people should have a right to expect. Increasing the number of full-service grocery stores in the two wards would allow our residents to be able to shop in their own neighborhoods at stores offering food as high in quality and accessibility (in terms of distance) as one can find anywhere in the District.”

Gray suggests using City surplus funds to help end food deserts in his ward.

In a recent memo, Gray, the former mayor who among his current duties on the city council, serves as the chairman for the Committee on Health, shared his suggestion – one which comes after his review of the District’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2019.

“. . . I am particularly excited to see our cash-on-hand has increased to a full 60 days and is now at the goal the Council set in the spring of 2010, plus an additional $323.6 million,” he writes.

Pointing to legislation he sponsored close to a decade ago and which has since become law, the “Sustainable Capital Investment and Fund Balance Restoration Act of 2010,” approved in the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Support Act of 2010, he explains, “this law created two locally-mandated reserve accounts, a Fiscal Stabilization Reserve and Cash Flow Reserve, and mandated that all unassigned local surplus funds be deposited into those two accounts until the District of Columbia achieved 60 days cash on hand.”

“[An] exciting development of reaching 60 days of operating cash is that legislation I championed as Mayor, now kicks in, and dedicates 50 percent of additional surpluses to the Housing Production Trust and 50 percent to pay-as-you-go capital funding. The OCFO [Office of the Chief Financial Officer] has certified that there’s currently $323.6 million of additional surpluses, so that equates to $161.8 million available for each purpose. This means $161.8 million can now be appropriated to ending food deserts in Wards 7 and 8 . . .” he writes.

“There’s no reason that we cannot do this,” Gray told the Informer. “It’s right and vital to invest in those who live in the east end of the City which as I shared earlier, totals around 160,000 residents. We can do this now. Nine sites have already been identified in the legislation I proposed.”

But how does one ring the bell and move the City from talking about solutions to putting words into actions – immediately?

Gray says it needs to be put into the budget by the mayor and then sent to the council.

“I fear if these dollars are allocated somewhere else, and with someone from the council more than likely sponsoring the use of this money (surplus) for other items, it will be much harder to move dollars around later. If people believe that food deserts are a critical issue and a critical need, they need to communicate that message during the budget process,” he said.

“That time is now.”

Understanding the D.C. Budget Process

Every spring, the mayor’s proposed budget and financial plan is submitted to the council. Council committees then review the request for each of the agencies under their purview before holding public hearings on each agency. After the hearing period concludes, each Council committee chair prepares a budget report of recommendations that is then marked up and approved by the full committee. Each committee report includes recommendations for funding and personnel levels for each agency, policy proposals, legislation necessary to implement the recommendations and any other budget-related analysis that the committee deems appropriate. After all committees approve their reports, the council’s Office of the Budget Director, under the chairman’s direction, incorporates the committees’ recommendations and additional council-wide recommendations into a single unified budget.

Look for part two of this series next week.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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