‘Another Broken Promise’: Food insecurity in DC

Food activists explain the challenges and inequalities facing D.C.’s food insecure residents

‘Another Broken Promise’: Food insecurity in DC
Food justice nonprofit Roots for Life gives a cooking demonstration at a farmers market to enhance people’s food knowledge and eradicate food insecurity.

Correction: This article has been corrected since it was first published to note that Delia Houseal has three children, not two.

Delia Houseal, chairperson of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7E, says that D.C. is split into two cities with completely different stories.

One story is of affluent access to fresh produce and grocery stores. The other is of vacant buildings, long commutes for shopping and often understocked corner markets, Houseal said. 

Houseal travels to Maryland to buy fresh produce, but she knows her access is a stark contrast to others in her neighborhood of Marshall Heights. Houseal has a car, which makes her shopping trips shorter and easier when she buys produce for her family, including three young children. Houseal also has her own backyard garden, so she can supplement some of the fresh produce she wishes she could buy every day.

But Ward 7 has a high population of elderly people who can’t drive and residents who often can’t afford to own a car. What’s left are hungry Washingtonians, stranded in a food desert with only two full service grocery stores to serve over 73,000 people.

“We are just like any other person in the city,” Houseal said about herself and her constituents. The issue is access. Affluent D.C. residents can think of biting into a fresh apple at the end of the work day and have the means to make that a reality. Her neighbors dream of the same thing, but there’s no stores around to provide that apple.

For American University students, there’s a Giant Food grocery store in Cathedral Commons, just a mile from campus. There’s another in Van Ness. If Giant Food happens to be barren of the produce students are looking for, there’s a Whole Foods store a mile away next to the Tenleytown-AU Metro Station. 

Students are walking distance from multiple full functioning supermarkets. With access to capital bikeshare right outside of Katzen Arts Center or able to hike in their own sneakers, getting to these stores isn’t the biggest challenge many students will face in their food consumption.

In Ward 3, which has a population of around 83,000, there are 9 grocery stores, according to the D.C. Department of Health’s Health Equity Report from 2018.

Ward 8, located south of the Anacostia River and west of Ward 7, has only one grocery store to serve over 80,000 people.

Where have all the grocery stores gone?

Food deserts are defined by the USDA as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” Food access is limited by lower income and limited transportation options to get to stores.

Nonprofit organizations have been operating in D.C. for years to combat the effects of these deserts in the city, particularly in Ward 7 and 8. According to its website, DC Greens, which focuses on food justice, advocates for residents to be able to shape programs that combat food insecurity in their communities.

Aparna Raj, the communications and marketing manager for DC Greens, said that lower income neighborhoods in the District have lower food access because neighborhoods, especially for Black communities, have been divested from over decades.

In 2010, D.C. passed the FEED DC Act that incentivizes grocery retailers to build in the city through tax breaks and helps corner stores sell more fresh produce through grants. However, residents in poorer neighborhoods have critiqued the bill because, since it was passed, more grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 closed while wealthier neighborhoods had more stores open. Prior to the bill’s passing, Ward 7 and 8 had seven grocery stores.

“Food justice is racial justice,” Raj said. “Systemic racism has led to disparities in food in D.C.”

Grocery stores have transformed from predominantly local operations to corporate chains through mergers. According to 2019 USDA data on food retail, there were over 500 food retail mergers in 2016 alone, which is the highest since 1999 when over 800 stores were merged with corporate chains. A study on grocery store consolidation published by GeoJournal in 2001 noted that from 1978 to 1984, the grocery store chain Safeway closed over 600 stores in cities, affecting predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

White residents left cities and moved to suburbs throughout the ‘60s, taking their affluence and grocery stores with them. In D.C. today, the median income for white residents is over $115,000. Meanwhile, the median income for Black residents is only $40,000.

In Ward 3, where the population was 74 percent white in 2018, according to the D.C. Department of Health’s Health Equity Report, the median income is the highest in all of D.C. In comparison, Ward 8 has the lowest median income in D.C., and the population was 92 percent Black in 2018. Ward 7 had a population that was 94 percent Black in 2018 and had the second lowest median income.

In 2013, Walmart planned to build two stores in Ward 7, but then canceled their plans after D.C. Council passed legislation that would’ve required Walmart and other large retailers to pay their workers a $12.25 hourly wage, the Washington Post reported.

Houseal said residents in Marshall Heights are still confused why that deal fell through and why there’s still no stores in their Ward.

“It’s another broken promise,” Houseal said. 

Houseal said there’s land for and money to be spent in Ward 7 stores, but the city government has demonstrated a “lack of commitment,” Houseal said. “It’s neglect.”

Raj said that food insecure residents in D.C. feel that neglect as “grocers and developers … make assumptions that people of lower income don’t want to eat healthy, but it’s an excuse for themselves.”

Food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus has only exacerbated the District’s food insecurity crisis, Raj said. 

Unemployment spurred by the epidemic in D.C. rose from 5 percent in January to almost 12 percent in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It fell to less than 9 percent in June.

A recently released Hunger Report from the Capital Area Food Bank predicted that COVID-19 could increase the food insecurity population by up to 60 percent in the DMV. 

At the start of 2020, about 80,000 people were food insecure. The pandemic could increase insecurity to almost 120,000 people in the DMV. About 47,000 of these people live in Ward 7 and 8.

“Food insecurity feels more like an emergency,” Raj said.

DC Greens runs a fresh produce program funded by the D.C. Health Department called Produce Plus, which provides residents with fresh food access through weekly funds they can spend at local farmers markets. Since the pandemic started, Raj said people have been added to a waitlist to receive these funds because the demand for aid increased so quickly.

In 2018, the Produce Plus program served over 18,000 people and distributed nearly $900,000 to customers, with 45 percent of them residing in Wards 7 and 8.

“Food is a basic human right,” Raj said. “You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to have access to healthy food.”

A dire situation

Other local activists, Rhonda Watson and Tamara Bibby wanted to reduce food insecurity with education as a catalyst, they said. After they saw the lack of resources people had to make better health and food decisions, Watson and Bibby co-founded and direct the nonprofit organization Roots for Life.

Roots for Life runs a nutritional cooking course for women at Hyacinth’s Place, a transitional house for women experiencing homelessness. Watson and Bibby said the ingredients for every class are bought locally, so the women know they have access to these resources and can make healthy recipes themselves.

Watson said these classes give these women independence and awareness on improving their food habits.

Bibby, who grew up on a farm and has her own experiences shucking corn and washing collard greens with her family, learned the value of fresh produce and enjoys sharing that knowledge with others. When teaching classes, she shares her story and makes connections, reminding students that food can still honor their culture in healthy ways.

“Memories can spark a taste in your mouth,” Bibby said. “I have a lot more in common with the people in these communities than I thought I did.”

Bibby said that unequal conditions in D.C. for housing, healthcare, transportation and income have created a “perfect storm” that makes food insecurity more dire than many know. “There’s a reason there’s so many [non-profit food justice organizations],” Bibby said. “There’s a huge need.”

Creating an oasis

Delia Houseal has seen organizations come and go in her community after not getting the “expected usage” out of their services. She said the problem is these organizations and the D.C. government aren’t communicating with people in the best ways. In ANC 7E, with a higher elderly population, word of mouth spreads information the best.

“There shouldn’t be a knowledge gap,” along with income gaps and food access gaps, Houseal said.

The result is consistent underrepresentation and underserving. Houseal has been advocating for more community gardening space in her neighborhood and consistent fresh markets with local public schools, something she said she’s never seen suggested before.

Bibby and Watson suggested that the D.C. government make more conscious decisions on what businesses are given permits to fill vacant buildings. Even further, buildings should become greener with rooftop gardens that the government helps residents develop, Bibby said.

“It isn’t just the grocery store,” Watson said. “It’s about the education before you get into the grocery stores.”

And even still, food insecurity isn’t just feeling hungry, Raj said. It’s the feeling of anxiety — not knowing where your next meal will be. It’s the impact on children’s learning capacity without any energy going into the school day. It’s about the impact on elderly people’s mental health as poor diets increase dementia risks.

Houseal wants the best for her community in Ward 7. She wants her kids to grow up in a community that has healthy food, safe streets and that makes them feel full and happy.

“We need everyone to come together,” Houseal said. “If one Ward falls, it affects all the others.”


Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.