Washington Highlands is in Ward 8. This ward has the fewest grocery stores of any ward (three for a population of about 74,000, which is around the average number of residents compared to other wards but half as many grocery stores). It also has the highest rate of diabetes and the second highest rate of obesity of any ward in the District. The average D.C. resident lives 10 blocks away from a full grocery. In small areas with lots of people and limited space, and where residents are discouraged from owning cars, you must rely on public transportation or your own two feet to cover the distance to get groceries.
A corner store is a smaller version of a grocery store. They sell essentials like paper products and preservative foods. Since corner stores are small, there are more of them, and often residents do a majority of their grocery shopping there. The added expense for the store of stocking fresh food is not always financially beneficial for small corner stores.
Getting residents to buy fresh food is just as important as getting stores to carry the fresh produce. Diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure are higher in low-income neighborhoods because the people that shop on a food stamp budget buy cheap food that lasts longer, like canned fruit packaged in sugar syrup instead of fresh fruit that costs more.
“[Corner stores] are where people have to do their grocery shopping… you don’t get healthy food and you don’t get good nutritious food, you get cheap food. I mean, something is better than nothing, but you don’t have access to good, affordable, fresh, wholesome food, and that’s what happens in many, many poor neighborhoods,” says Lynn Brantley, president and co-founder of the CAFB, about to retire after 43 years of working on hunger issues.
“We used to have a farmers market in Southeast Washington but we couldn’t get people to come, so we had to close it… it just didn’t go and we couldn’t keep doing it,” recalls Brantley. She says educating people so food becomes a health issue, not just a money issue, is one of the most important aspects of changing a food desert. Brantley said there were more people receiving government assistance now than when she started the CAFB; Ward 8 has had the highest number of food stamp recipients in the city for the last ten years.
The Mobile Market started out of a response to food deserts and inaccessibility to healthy food. Benjamin Bartley, director of the Mobile Market, says the whole idea for the Mobile Market is to “bring the market to where there isn’t one.” The Mobile Market grows most of their own food on their farm in Alexandria, Virginia called Arcadia Farms. Bartley sells meat, eggs, and bottles of milk in addition to fruits and vegetables. The bus is bright green with giant letters on the side spelling out Acadia Mobile Market, and, at the stops, Bartley fastens four metal racks to the side of the bus and loads up the shelves with wooden crates of leafy greens, purple turnips, and plump tomatoes.
“Businesses are driven by profit, which is good because that ultimately provides jobs for people, but businesses look at the demographics about where they can best make their company viable,” says Brantley. The ability to walk to places nearby like businesses, schools, and grocery stores is what makes the District the 7th most walkable city in the United States, but Washington Highlands is in the lowest percentile of walkability. Because Washington Highlands is not an attractive neighborhood to a prospective business, not many businesses move in, including grocery stores.
“It’s not just about the proximity to the grocery store as much as it is what they have,” said Lindsey Palmer, director of Healthy Corners, an initiative from DC Central Kitchen. “We might say, ‘oh, well there is a grocery store… two miles from most folks,’ but when you actually get there and see what’s on the shelves, it’s pretty sad.”
Last year, the federal government gave DC Central Kitchen a grant to supply corner stores with fresh produce at discounted costs. When distributors have bananas that are ripe today, they can’t sell them tomorrow, so DCCK buys those bananas at a low cost and then sells them to corner stores at that same low cost.
“We need to kind of uproot the food system and food deserts and say the problem is there’s no access, that people cant get [fresh produce]… that’s what we’re trying to do with Healthy Corners,” said Palmer. “Giving people food doesn’t really do anything. You want to give them an opportunity to change themselves."