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Since moving to the Bellevue neighborhood of Ward 8 three years ago, Jay Clark has become quite familiar with the lack of quality produce in his community grocery stores.
So much so that he often travels across the Anacostia River to shop for his food.
Clark, a lifelong D.C. resident hailing from Northeast, said it’s by design that the Giant stores located in Eastover in Oxon Hill, Maryland and along Alabama Avenue in Southeast carry what he, and several others, consider some of the worst produce in the D.C. area.
“They don’t give the people in Southeast good, quality foods. Simple as that,” said Clark, 41.
“The pineapples aren’t going to look like the pineapples they carry in the Connecticut Avenue location,” he continued. “They aren’t going to get the fresh peaches, the fresh bananas. Not the top of the line.”
Attempting to Close the Food Security Gap
Clark lives in a food desert, which is defined as a geographic area where residents lack access to grocery stores that are within convenient traveling distance.
A 2020 grocery store report by D.C. Hunger Solutions revealed that Wards 7 and 8, the District’s lowest-income wards, have significantly fewer full-service grocery stores than other parts of the city where residents have higher incomes.
In Ward 7, 26.6% of residents live below the poverty line while 34.2% of Ward 8 residents face a similar situation. These figures are twice that of wards west of the Anacostia River.
Supermarket tax exemptions that waive taxes and fees for grocery stores built in food deserts have been unsuccessful in bringing full-service grocery stores to Wards 7 and 8, according to D.C. Hunger Solutions.
In recent years, the Bowser administration has attempted to boost food access east of the Anacostia River. In June, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) commemorated the opening of the new headquarters for the Department of General Services on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast. That move counted as part of an east-of-the-river leasing strategy to attract grocers to Wards 7 and 8.
In March, the Nourish DC Collaborative provided more than a dozen non-white food businesses in Wards 5, 7 and 8 with grants, financing, and technical assistance. Additionally, the Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) had nearly $11 million available via the Food Access Fund, which provides qualifying businesses with capital for the expansion of their operations to areas designated as food deserts.
The Neighborhood Prosperity Fund brought Good Food Market to South Capitol Street in Southeast during the latter part of 2021.
Even so, the number of grocery stores in Ward 8 has remained the same. Redistricting brought Navy Yard — a more racially heterogeneous, affluent neighborhood located west of the Anacostia River — into Ward 8. Not long after, Good Food Market closed under the pressure of inflation.
Today, Ward 8 residents living east of the Anacostia River only have access to the Giant on Alabama Avenue. In Ward 7, residents only have Safeway, also on Alabama Avenue, along with Lidl, which opened in Skyland Town Center last year.
This summer, the threat of the Ward 8 Giant’s closure, once again, sparked dialogue about food insecurity in the District’s low-income communities. The major grocer cited revenue loss from consumer theft as a major factor in discussions about whether to cease operations.
It has since reversed course, choosing instead to increase security and stop selling name-brand items.
Had Giant followed through with shutting down its Ward 8 location, the loss of that grocer would’ve followed that of Good Food Market on South Capitol Street and Wal-Mart on the H Street corridor in Northeast.
Since entering her role as chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Health, D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) has endeavored to bring more full-service grocers to Wards 5, 7 and 8. Part of that effort, she told The Informer, involves pressing DMPED for a comprehensive plan to tackle food insecurity.
Henderson said she emailed Deputy Mayor Keith Anderson on Aug. 22 to inquire about the work that’s underway to replace the shuttered Good Food Market. She said Anderson looped in colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, but no one has followed up since.
A DMPED spokesperson told The Informer that agency staff have been in touch with Henderson’s office as recently as the week of Sept. 4.
Henderson has since expressed plans to write a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) that implores her to secure funding for the Give SNAP a Raise Amendment Act, legislation that the D.C. Council passed toward the end of last year to increase the monthly SNAP allotment for District residents by 10%.
In explaining her support for the legislation, Henderson said that attracting large grocers to historically marginalized neighborhoods requires boosting their confidence in consumers’ ability to consistently purchase groceries throughout the month.
Henderson said the Give SNAP a Raise Amendment Act, estimated to cost more than $213 million between fiscal year 2023 and fiscal year 2026, can do just that at a time when inflation, hits to the agriculture industry, and higher transportation costs have increased grocery prices.
“If we do what we can to expand the purchasing power of communities using SNAP and WIC, it doesn’t only benefit them, it benefits our ability to have grocery stores in these areas because now they have conducted research on who can purchase more beyond the first of the month,” Henderson said. “Doing this will have a domino effect on the issues concerning food deserts.”
D.C. Hunger Solutions reached a similar conclusion about the Give SNAP a Raise Amendment Act in its August report, titled “Still Minding the Grocery Gap in D.C. — A 2023 Update.” The legislation counted among a bevy of responses to food insecurity that the nonprofit recommended.
While D.C. Hunger Solutions interim director LaMonika Jones said the legislation should be a high-priority item during the next budget cycle, she also stressed the need for a more robust public transportation network east of the Anacostia River and a multisector task force that examines barriers to grocery store development.
“We had a lot of these conversations during budget season, assessing the budget when it’s handed down to make sure money is reallocated to an area of highest need,” Jones said.
“We know there needs to be money invested in transportation that will benefit residents east of the Anacostia River to give them access points, to healthcare center jobs, and grocery stores,” Jones continued. “We have to be careful not to silo ourselves and address the different pieces of the puzzle to get to the systemic issues and a viable solution and bring more grocery stores.”
Raising Residents’ Awareness of Their Situation
Throughout the District, Bread for the City, DC Greens, and other organizations are providing services intended to lift barriers that often prevent District residents from enjoying nutritious meals.
Festus Sodimu, a Northeast resident and recipient of D.C. Greens’ Produce Prescription program, said that attempting to shop for his daughter within budget became a stressful situation. Since connecting with DC Greens, he has been able to access fresh food at Giant locations in Northeast, instead of what he described as lower quality selections at Aldi in Northeast.
“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,” Sodimu said. “To be honest, it’s all expensive, but most of us cannot afford to buy [all] organic. Luckily, we have the option… because we have the assistance.”
As Clark continues to overcome the limitations of living in a food desert, he laments the possibility of him and his neighbors never knowing the feeling of purchasing fresh, affordable groceries within walking distance of their homes.
“Most people in Southeast don’t even have cars to go anywhere, so they have to deal with what they get,” Clark said.
“People who have cars are going to hop in their cars and go shop somewhere else,” Clark added. “And then for some of them, they don’t even know whether they are getting secondhand or first-grade food. If you’ve always [only] had second-class food, how would you know what first class is?”