CommunityD Kevin McNeir

Food Deserts Continue Within D.C.’s Southeast Neighborhoods

Should Residents Trust Recent Promises and Announced Plans of Elected Officials?

Second of a two-part series

In last week’s news story, we focused on the impact that years of “food apartheid” disproportionately experienced among poorer communities in the District, specifically residents of Wards 7 and 8, acknowledged by most city officials as an inequity of services potentially threatening the health and well-being of an estimated 160,000 citizens who live in Southeast, it’s an injustice that remains unabated.

Specifically, the stark difference in the number of full-service grocery stores in more affluent portions of D.C., as high as 10 in some wards while as few as two and one in Wards 7 and 8, respectively, has seemingly been an issue prioritized by a mere handful of the District’s elected officials.

But as we reported last week, D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) says that with previously-passed legislation which he sponsored allowing the City to use recently-reported surplus dollars toward the cost for the construction of several full-service grocery stores in the two Southeast, it’s simply a question of whether these citizens’ longtime requests will be heeded.

Now, he says, with the Mayor and City Council entering into the throes of the FY 2021 Budget process which occurs each year during the month of March, residents have a perfect opportunity to attend public hearings, make their demands known and to then hold those elected to represent their interests responsible.

Gray points to nine sites identified as a result of legislation he originally brought to the Council several years ago and include the St. Elizabeths East Campus in the heart of Ward 8, Deanwood Town Center on the north end of Ward 7 and the long-anticipated Skyland Town Center which borders the two Southeast wards as examples of projects that could be jumpstarted in relatively short order.

“We have had major corporations engage in negotiations only to renege on their promises much to the dismay of members of the Council and the residents who live East of the River,” he said. “But if we were to move forward with dedicated partners with more urgency targeting some of the nine sites to which I earlier referred, it would restore promises made by certain entities going back several years.”

“Further, with more full-service grocery stores up and running in Southeast, along with the many amenities they would offer, it would make moving into either Ward 7 or 8 even more attractive. We’d have an opportunity to really do something good.”

“No one is ‘not’ supporting this. Last year as City Council chairman, Phil Mendelson could have gotten what we’ve long requested done. This year he has told me that if the mayor sends it down – that is as a dedicated line item in the FY 2021 budget – that he will support the venture.”

“We’ve got to do the right thing – this is one of those times we really must. Those who live in Wards 7 and 8 collectively suffer from the worst health disparities in the District. But consuming healthier food as available in newly-built full-service grocery stores will certainly help to stave off these health disparities, also warding off those that some residents already face,” Gray said.

Ward 8 Council member White: ‘Change is Already Here’ 

 Just a few days ago, Council member Trayon White (D-Ward) hosted a budget forum at The Temple of Praise in Southeast where he laid out his priorities for the communities he represents and invited residents to share their concerns.

But he took time to speak with The Washington Informer, answering questions particularly focusing on the challenge of food deserts that Ward 8 residents still face and how he’s working toward alleviating the problem.

“As for the delay in building grocery stores that a number of residents had requested, we first decided to hold a food justice walk which helped us to determine where the gaps are,” he said. “But we couldn’t proceed with construction because the funds weren’t there. The two full-service grocery stores currently being built were made possible because we were successful in securing $200,000 in the budget and now being utilized as we realize the requests of our residents and to the benefit of everyone in Ward 8.”

“We’re also building a state-of-the-art urban farm. We’re an agricultural people and so it makes sense to put resources behind this project. It’s reminiscent of what I’ve seen during my visits to Africa. During its peak, the Songhai Empire was one of the most powerful on the continent. They were committed to making the conditions needed so that they could grow their own, fresh produce.”

“Fresh produce is just as important as having a full-service grocery store and I’ve been tougher on grocery and convenience stores in the District than anyone else. After receiving complaints about substandard conditions at publically-identified 7-11 stores, I turned up the fire, communicated with the Department of Health and pressed them to monitor conditions more closely.”

“People continue calling me on a regular basis and we’re making progress. And my colleagues on the City Council for the most part have been supportive of what I’m doing in Ward 8 and what Council member Gray’s doing in Ward 7.”

“Two stores will certainly help but two stores are not enough. We going to bring more grocery stores here – some may even more resemble the kinds of stores you see in co-op systems but we’re not going to become complacent,” White said.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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