There is no oasis in a food desert

There is a major disparity in the concentration of grocery stores in DC. This graphic shows the distribution of full-service stores in the District.

There is a major disparity in the concentration of grocery stores in DC. This graphic shows the distribution of full-service stores in the District.

Juna Park-Rogers

There are only three full-service grocery stores in both Ward 7 and 8 for nearly 150,000 residents. In Ward 3, there are nine full service grocery stores for only 80,000 residents. The neighborhoods across the river experience “food deserts” because they are in poorer, predominantly Black neighborhoods. These neighborhoods aren’t given enough attention from big chain grocery stores or anyone else and suffer without basic necessities like food.

The term “food desert” refers to geographic areas in which access to healthy and affordable food is limited. Instead of grocery stores, there are usually fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell unhealthy food. For as long as I have lived in DC, I have lived in “food deserts.”

Many people in DC who live in Wards 7 and 8 have been suffering from this problem for decades. I’m here to talk about my experience with “food deserts” or the newer term, “food apartheid.” My mom says that a desert is a naturally occurring phenomenon in nature. But there is nothing natural about humans not having food to eat.

I was born in Denver, Colorado but moved to DC when I was five years old. When we moved to DC my dad was working at a social service agency and my mom was consulting. They were making a great income but the house in Denver had not sold yet, so we moved into affordable housing apartments in Congress Heights in Ward 8. My mom said that wasn’t just food apartheid, it may as well have been apartheid.

There was no grocery store in the entire ward, and our car was stolen after six months, so we had to move again. We moved to 16th and D Streets NE near the edge of Capitol Hill That was before Capitol Hill was gentrified. There were two grocery stores in that area, one closer to the safer side of Capitol Hill, near Watkins Elementary School, and one closer to Benning Road. We were closer to the Hechinger Mall Safeway near Benning Road, so the first Saturday we moved in, my mom was excited to say “let’s walk to the grocery store.”

Technically it was only six blocks away. It was a beautiful and sunny April morning and my brother and I saw a brand new playground and my mom said we could play there after we did the shopping and had some lunch. A few blocks farther and suddenly we saw all kinds of black trucks with the windows tinted dark. There were a bunch of men wearing kevlar that read “US Marshall” on their backs. They were kneeling behind their cars and had their guns pointed at the back of this one house. My mom said they were bounty hunters and we needed to go back home. My dad said, “told you so.” After that we went right back to going to the grocery store by Watkins. My mom loved the idea of being close to a grocery store, but we weren’t even able to enjoy a walk to get food without feeling endangered.

My dad knows about food deserts because he grew up in Third Ward in Houston just like the Geto Boys. And because he’s Black. Although I wasn’t born here, I was raised in DC in the neighborhood around Watkins. Today, gentrification has hit that area big time. Within a seven block area, you can shop at Safeway, Harris Teeter, or Trader Joe’s, all with parking lots or underground garages. I don’t live there anymore. That was almost 10 years ago.

But in other neighborhoods, like the parts of DC across the river, not much has changed. Just last year, about a 100 people marched through Anacostia, calling for more grocery stores in Ward 8. They have only one grocery store for the entire ward. This is the same ward that I lived in when I first arrived in DC in 2006. These people not only marched in protest, but they walked to the nearest grocery store, which was miles away from where they lived. They still haven’t gotten a grocery store and there aren’t plans for one in the future.

It all comes down to demographics. How else can it be explained that Ward 3 (neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Chevy Chase, and The Palisades) which are made up of predominantly white residents, have nine grocery stores but Ward 7 and 8 combined (neighborhoods like Anacostia, the Parklands, Lincoln Heights, the area around Division and Sheriff Road) which are made up of predominantly Black residents, have only three grocery stores? This means that there are almost twice as many residents who have to shop at the three grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8, but there are half as many residents in Ward 3 who have a choice of triple the stores. It’s clear there’s a connection between white people getting access to grocery stores, no matter how few residents there are. And it’s clear that there’s a connection between Black people and less access to grocery stores, no matter how many more residents there are.

When I moved to Ward 7 off of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, the Safeway on 40th & Benning Road was just as bad as the one in Ward 8. It never had fresh fruits or vegetables, there were always long lines with only one checkout lane open, the liquor section was always gated up, and there was always security monitoring the entrances and exits. That was in 2010.

Now that gentrification has creeped over the bridge, there are always fresh fruits and veggies stacked in neat boxes, there are no more lines because the checkout lanes are filled with workers ready to take the next customer. The gate locking off the alcohol has been pulled back, and now there is even a fancy wine section. The number of security guards has decreased to one, and there have been more and more white people buying their groceries from  there.

I see another connection. When white people started moving into my neighborhood, the Safeway started acting right. Before that there could have been 20 Black people in line and they would not open up any other checkout lanes, but it only takes one white person for them to make sure every lane is open. Who makes these decisions? Is it the manager of that Safeway, or the CEO at corporate?

The messed up thing is that as more white people move in, there are fewer and fewer Black people. The real test will be putting in self-checkout lanes. Since that Safeway has been there, they have not had self-checkout lanes. How many white people does it take to open up a self-checkout lane?