Searching for Healthy Meals in D.C.’s Food Deserts

Tiffany Browne’s home in Southeast Washington is in a food desert. Ward 7, where she lives, and nearby Ward 8 have the fewest supermarkets in the District of Columbia.

Modest corner stores, minimarts and liquor stores attempt to fill the void, but even they are sparsely sprinkled throughout the residential area. When Giant opened its doors in 2007 as part of a Washington revitalization campaign, it became the first major supermarket retailer to break ground in Ward 8 in nine years. But it’s too far.

For Browne, 30, the drive from her Ward 7 residence to Giant is about five miles — a distance too long to travel if she forgot eggs or milk when shopping for her 3-year-old daughter or diabetic mother, so she leaves the district.

Like so many other residents in the area, Browne crosses the Maryland state line for groceries and shops in neighboring Prince George’s County. Browne also shops at Whole Foods Market and Trader Joes for healthy food outside Ward 7. “But that’s us,” she says. “That’s what we can afford. We have readily available transportation that we can go to; so that’s what we do.”

But for the majority of residents in the low-income region, a weekly trek to Maryland simply isn’t feasible. Instead, they rely on the convenience of fast-food restaurants and often more expensive convenience shops to feed their families — trading fresh produce for high sugar and high salt.

According to a recent report by D.C. Hunger Solutions (DCHS), limited access to fresh food is commonplace in five wards, and Washington’s 43 full-service grocery stores are distributed unevenly across the district. Thus, a food desert emerges — a region barren of the nutritious produce of mainstream grocery stores but inundated with unhealthy alternatives.

“In some neighborhoods you can’t find something as simple as a tomato. You can find ketchup. You can find cans of high salt soup,” says Mari Gallagher, principal of Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, a firm that has led the research in food deserts and helped coin the term in the United States.

“The metaphor is that you can go a long way in a food desert and find food, but it wouldn’t necessarily be healthy.”

In her research, Gallagher found that residents of food desert communities suffer worse diet-related health outcomes, including diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease and premature death. As the economy worsens, the grocery dearth has only given headway to America’s growing health dilemma.

To draw attention to the importance of nutrition, President Obama pledged to end childhood obesity by 2015. First Lady Michelle Obama started a White House Kitchen Garden last year and recently launched a Let’s Move campaign, supported by the Partnership for a Healthier America, to end childhood obesity.

Earlier this week, D.C. Council unanimously approved the Healthy Schools Act. The plan would overhaul nutrition and fitness programs at public and charter schools to supplement what children are often unable to get at home, because of income, access or other factors.

The Grocery Gap
In Washington, low income often means low access. The city’s poorest wards, 7 and 8, account for 23 percent of the total population, but are home to only 16 percent of the district’s grocery stores. The largely African-American and obese population of the region bare the brunt of the grocery gap, complete with the troubling nutrition, health and economic underpinnings.

According to Ashley Ashbrook, the director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, residents in low-income communities face the most challenges in food deserts. They must drive several miles to reach a supermarket or coordinate with a car owner to get transportation. Even more, those using public transportation may have to use several bus routes to reach their supermarket destination, all of which can be costly for residents with a limited income.

“It’s basically akin to some sort of poverty tax,” Ashbrook says. “You’re paying to get food outside your neighborhood, and it’s costing you not only in terms of money but in term of time and energy.”

Ashbrook has spearheaded research and advocacy surrounding food access in the district, and D.C. Hunger Solutions has published two reports on the extent of grocery dearth and limitations in 2006 and earlier this year. Consistently, disparities in supermarket distribution were found, and Ward 7 and 8 continued to be hit the hardest while Wards 4 and 5 are not too far behind.

In Washington, the average ratio of grocers per resident is one for every 14,000. Ward 3, one of the wealthiest in the District, has five times as many full-service grocery stores than Ward 4 with 1 grocer per 38,440 residents. Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 all fall under the district average.

While the health risks of poor access to food have been made clear through research nationally, a report by D.C. Hunger Solutions and Social Compact, a non-profit that facilitates private investment in undervalued communities, found that the district suffers financially from limited access as well.

Because the supply of grocers in Washington, doesn’t meet the demand, residents leave the area to shop in neighboring states. Residents spend an estimated $920 million on groceries annually, and the report found that 12 percent, or $112.4 million, is being “leaked” into outside jurisdictions.

It is DCHS’ hope is that the leak will serve as incentive for expanding the grocery retail market in Washington  to capture the money spent outside district lines.

Ending Food Deserts
The solution to the food desert crisis to many food access researchers is simple: more supermarkets. DCHS and Social Compact propose that Washington develop a Health Food Access Initiative, modeled after Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative and New York City’s “FRESH” program.

Pennsylvania’s $120 million initiative resulted in the development and improvement of 83 full-service grocery stores and healthy food vendors, which retained and created 5,000 jobs.

“Washington, D.C., competes with Maryland and Virginia, and to get a store to come in you have to consider how can we have a grocery ambassador that really works to bring stores to underserved areas in the city,” Ashbrook says. “How can we create so many exemptions to bring a store in if that’s what a community really needs to be vibrant?”

A similar initiative in Washington could attract grocers into underserved wards as well as create jobs and generate tax revenue. Researchers agree that while the solution may seem elementary, implementation will not be without its challenges.

In some areas of Washington, there simply is no space.

The DCHS report found that Wards 4, 7 and 8 fall below the 2.11 district average for grocery retail space per person. Space for larger stores could mean more variety of healthy foods and in larger quantities at lower costs to shoppers.

For residents using food stamps, now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), purchasing groceries at area supermarkets and vendors comes with ease as SNAP is accepted at most locations in Washington.

For residents using WIC—Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children— finding vendors who accept their federal vouchers can become increasingly difficult for mothers who wish to feed their children with nutritious options.

In Ward 7 and 8, regions where residents are more likely to use WIC in high numbers, only 33 percent to 50 percent of the communities’ grocers accept WIC benefits adding to the challenges that food deserts face.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
The Harvest for Health department of the Capital Area Food Bank, which deals with food access disparities at the emergency food organization, opened a farmer’s market in Anacostia. The farmer’s market, which featured healthy food options and fresh produce, closed after nine seasons. Some residents, who had grown accustomed to processed foods, were unsure of how to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to their existing diet and meals.

“We need to start way down the chain in terms of working with children to help inform habits instead of changing them later,” says Jody Tick, director of Harvest for Health.

“People have lost the connection of how you prepare food,” says Tick who found that the elderly had a wealth of knowledge surrounding fresh produce. “There have been some loss between seniors’ generation and the current generation now in terms of what even constitutes a healthy diet and how do you shop for one on a budget and how do you prepare it at home.”

The Capital Area Food Bank distributes food to partner agencies in the district. To help fill the void left by the grocery gap, its annual distribution has increased significantly. Starting in July, Capital Area Food Bank will aim to distribute 30 million pounds of food, up from 25 million, half of which will be fresh produce—numbers unprecedented by other organizations of its kind.

Even with advancements on a grassroots level this much was clear: More supermarkets would have to be coupled with more nutritional education if residents unfamiliar with fresh food were to successfully introduce them to their families. The solution for limited access to fresh produce and the health implications that follow can’t be solved with a one-tier program. Research shows that it will take change on both a policy and community level to see significant progress.

The food desert dilemma has plagued Washington for decades, and many residents, especially the elderly who are unable to travel great distances for food, have grown restless. At Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, outspoken residents have expressed the need for more grocers with high quality food and greater diversity.

“We are in a mode of transition,” says Browne, who keeps abreast of issues in her community. “There is development that’s coming in and it’s always discussed at the different ANC meetings, but of course sometimes the hold-up is in the red tape.”

“The change is slowly coming,” Browne says. “It’s just a matter of people being patient with it.”

Kendra Desrosiers is a correspondent for the Howard University News Service.