Food insecurity has been further exacerbated by COVID-19 and has left many families worried about how to manage hunger without additional food programs. (Courtesy photo)
**FILE** Food insecurity has been further exacerbated by COVID-19 and has left many families worried about how to manage hunger without additional food programs. (Courtesy photo)

The terms food desert or food insecure are often used to describe many communities East of the River. Why?

What do these terms mean anyway? Furthermore, why does it seem as if those terms are used exclusively for black, brown or poor communities, especially those East of the Anacostia River? 

The standard definitions for “food desert” and ‘food insecurity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, are as follows;  “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food,” and “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” 

When I think of a “food desert” or “food insecurity” what comes to my mind is a war-torn nation or one ravaged by famine. I live South of Massachusetts Ave, along the Pennsylvania Ave corridor in Hillcrest. I am walking distance from Safeway and Lidl, maybe eight blocks from my house. When I lived in Twining, also along the Pennsylvania Ave Corridor, I was closer to YES! Organic Market. I could also walk to Harris Teeter.

Let’s be clear. I understand that there are disparities and inequities based on class and race. Ward 6 has 10 grocery stores, and Ward 7 has three. That’s a different issue. White communities possess 81 times the wealth of Black communities in DC.  And, yes, something needs to be done about that.  

I strongly suggest that the negative labeling of communities in Ward 7 and 8 stop. The progressive activists and advocates living outside of this community, who may be trying to help, are really doing these communities a disservice. These labels are devaluing and stigmatizing. This can hurt our ability to connect those who need access to good, affordable food with those resources. I’ll explain what I mean. 

Just this holiday season, I was on a service project with my son and Scout Troop #1650. We went to St Francis Xavier to prepare bags of food to give to families in need. 

There were scores of bags and hundreds of food items. We only were able to give a small fraction of the food away. The disconnect between service providers and those who need the service needs bridging. We ended up transporting scores of food bags to other community-based organizations within the Penn. Ave. corridor.

Within that hour, we were able to gather six community and faith-based organizations with in the area to meet and discuss the real problem: access, infrastructure and dynamic communications. What we learned is that there is more than enough food. The problem is that service providers are not able to regularly and predictably connect with those who need food the most.

 By calling it a “food desert” or labeling people or communities as “food insecure,” it creates a perception of the problem being with the place and the people.  Instead, the real problem is that the systems government and community-based organizations are using are inadequate and ineffective.

This isn’t a desert; it’s a reservoir without a pipeline to needy families.  We can supply the demand. We simply lack the infrastructure and mechanisms to match the two together in real-time on an ongoing basis.  

I would like to see city leaders dig deeper and build the infrastructure. Are we really building bridges and connecting people to what they need? 

Turkey giveaways are a wonderful symbol of a community taking care of its members, during the holidays. D.C. is a well-resourced city with a broadly shared commitment to economic equity and access to opportunity. Each community, regardless of geography, needs to be connected to the mainstream flow of resources, information and access to opportunity.

Let’s see the problem for what it is, a misdiagnosis. Let’s solve for X and stop explaining Y. We don’t need labels. We need to build the infrastructures that make dynamic communication normal, and access to opportunity the standard. If we don’t, labeling will keep occurring and people will not be connected to what they need.

Villareal Johnson is the current Hillcrest Community Civic Association President and five-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. He has lived in the Pennsylvania Avenue Corridor for 20 years. He is the owner of The BBCP Leadership & Professional Group, a company that helps its clients strategically plan and execute their personal, professional and business objectives.

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  1. Mr. Johnson,
    Thank you for that article on food deserts. I alway wondered what constituted calling a neighborhood a “food desert.” Your explanation was very clear and your suggestion on how to effectively get food to those in need was outstanding. I agree.

  2. Been trying to contact you I would like to put one of your signs in my front yard knowing your concerns and involvement in our back alley

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