City on a Hill: The Geography of Hunger

September 4, 2014

From the convenience of high quality, organic produce at Safeway to fresh sushi plates at Dean & Deluca, Georgetown students are surrounded by a cornucopia of food choices. What many students don’t realize, however, is that despite the the availability of nice eateries in this neighborhood, most of D.C. is actually confronting a serious problem: food deserts.

Defined as a geographic region where residents have extremely limited access to healthy food options or grocery stores, food deserts are mostly situated in areas like Anacostia, where malnutrition, obesity, and poverty are commonplace.

According to estimates from D.C. Department of Health’s 2009 health report, of the approximately 43 grocery stores in the city, only four are located in Ward 7 and three in Ward 8—the poorest areas of D.C. At the same time, nearly 11 full service stores are positioned within Ward 3, the area of the city with the highest income. In Georgetown, one of the wealthiest areas of the city, I can think of about 5 grocery store options within a mile radius just off the top of my head.

Only 41 percent of D.C. residents live within a five minute walk to a grocery store. Clearly, D.C. has a serious problem with providing access to basic necessities to those most in need of them—those in the lower socioeconomic bracket of the population.

There are a host of problems associated with food deserts that are systemic and contribute to a continuous cycle of poverty and poor health within the District. Much of D.C.’s poor, concentrated southeast of the Anacostia River, are forced to subsist on food from gas stations, which have no nutritional value whatsoever. What’s worse, the nearest options for healthy food, often more expensive than gas station fare, are only accessible via public transportation, which tacks on an additional cost, never mind the scarcity of transportation to begin with. These wards are also the least walkable portions of the city. It’s almost like walking in a literal desert—stretches of treacherous terrain without proper sustenance.

According to the the D.C. Department of Health’s 2010 report, obesity rates in Wards 7 and 8 are upwards of 40 percent. Compared to the rest of D.C., which boasts obesity rates lower than 20 percent, these areas of the city clearly need a lot of help. Ignoring the problem is not only a human rights issue, but also a costly mistake. With rising healthcare costs across the country, providing emergency services to residents who are being denied access to what is necessary for their health seems ridiculous.

Admittedly, the city is taking small steps to address the issue. In 2011, Mayor Vincent Gray announced a new sustainability plan for the city, dubbed “Sustainable D.C.” In the plan, he promised to eradicate food deserts in poor urban areas, specifically to “ensure 75 percent of residents live within one-fourth mile of a community garden, farmers’ market or healthy corner store” by 2032.

But 2032 is 18 years away. That’s an entire childhood and adolescence of malnutrition. Of the limited action that’s been taking place now, three large Walmarts are being constructed in Wards 4 and 6. While it is positive that more full service grocery stores are being offered in these areas, there are also a few obvious consequences: smaller businesses being crowded out, including farmers and local convenience stores, and a major corporation such as Walmart has a price monopoly on the products.

Yet, there’s still hope. With the D.C. Department of General Service signing onto a lease with BrightFarms, Inc., a company that will build one of the largest urban farms in the country in Ward 8, there’s a possibility that more nutritious food will reach the mouths of D.C.’s poor. The question, of course, is whether that will actually happen. The monolith of a greenhouse, slated for completion this November, is supposed to produce up to a million pounds of food a year to be delivered to Giant grocery stores. Whether this initiative is going to help areas southeast of the Anacostia is a fragile promise, considering the area’s spotty access to existing stores.

The obvious short term solution to eliminate food deserts would be to provide more grocery stores within walking distance of most residents. In the long run, a more permanent solution is for the D.C. Council to incentivize local farmers and small businesses to create smaller, but more numerous stores throughout their respective regions. That way, the District would avoid price monopolies, allow for competition, and give people more options. Hopefully, this will be achieved through the 2010 FEED D.C. Act, which aims to do all these things.

In the meantime, remember the next time that you complain about having to walk to your local Safeway, that there are people who aren’t so fortunate to even be near a grocery store. Educate yourself on the problem, spread awareness, and donate to local food banks.


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