Spending a Dime While Earning a Nickel

Residents Say It’s Hard to Buy Healthy Food With Little or No Income

Talesha Marble slowly walked through the aisles in the Giant on Alabama Avenue Southeast. Marble picked up a box of Lucky Charms. When she saw the price, she put it back on the shelf. She got the generic brand instead. 

“This is how it is,” Marble said. “Every two weeks, I always spend so much time deciding on how I can spend my money in here.”

After about two hours of grocery shopping she was ready to check out. The cashier passed bread, rice and juice, among other things, over the scanner. When the last item entered the plastic tan shopping bag, her total was $175.39.  

Marble frowned as she slid her card in the card reader. “I don’t make a lot of money,” she said. She works as a part-time administrative assistant in Hyattsville, Md. “They cut my hours because of the economy I guess, but I still may as well be full time on part-time pay.” 

After Marble packed her groceries in her 2001 Dodge Neon, she drove home to prepare dinner.

Food and water are necessities for life. It is usually not hard to find some form of food outlet, whether it is a grocery store or fast food restaurant. However, it is hard for some families to buy the recommended nutritional staples — or even to buy food at all.  

Outside Union Station, a middle-aged woman shuffles around on a mission to gather enough money to buy food for her baby. She asked a well-tailored man for a dollar. “It’s a recession,” the man said as he ran toward the D4 bus stop.

“It has always been a recession for me,” the woman quietly replied. She walked over to the next passer-by to start her process all over again. 

For a family of four to live comfortably in Washington, the average annual household income needs to be $63,162, according to a 2006 study by the Economic Policy Institute. However, only about 40 percent of the population makes more than $65,000.  

In fact, about 34 percent of residents make less than $35,000 a year, 2008 census figures show. Of that, about 92 percent have a family, and 85 percent head single-parent households, like Marble, who has 8-year-old and 6-year-old daughters.  

Despite Marble’s modest income, she refuses to accept governmental aid and her children are too old for her family to receive the nutrition supplement from the Women Infants and Children Program, known as WIC. “My mother never accepted any of these handouts, and she had five kids. Neither will I.”  

The challenge for residents like Marble or the woman at Union Station is that Washington is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. In 2005, the monthly cost for necessary food items was $651. Affordability is a major issue under these circumstances, especially with the local unemployment rate at 10.9 percent, exceeding the national rate of 9.7 percent.

Not only are prices high in Washington overall, but they are often highest in places with the lowest incomes, such as Ward 7 where Marble lives. In the Giant on Alabama Avenue where she shops, a small container of ground cinnamon is $3. At the Giant in Columbia Heights in Ward 1, the same bottle of cinnamon is $2.50. It is 50 cents cheaper in a wealthier neighborhood. 

“I do not have a problem with getting to the stores in my area, because I drive,” Marble said. “I would like to pay less for my stuff, but Columbia Heights is a little too far.” 

A lot of items were cheaper in Columbia Heights. The difference in prices for groceries like milk, bread, cheese, grapes and meat ranged from 30 cents to $3.  

 “The bad thing is that most people don’t know what it is like to worry about feeding your family,” Marble said. After she saw the statistics on household income and families, she thought again. “I guess the bad thing is that most people do know what it is like to not be able to really feed their families.”

Nicole Austin is a correspondent for the Howard University News Service.