DC and the food desert issue revisited
I've written about this topic a bunch over the years (e.g., "Um, where are DC's food deserts?" and "Supermarkets: innovation and equity planning").
Last week's Washington City Paper has an article about it, "In Wards 7 and 8, Feeding the Food Insecure is a Team Effort." According to the article, Ward 7 has two grocery stores and Ward 8 one, although both wards are served by grocery stores located on the other side of the DC-Maryland line.
From the article:
DC Greens and D.C. Hunger Solutions are two of many community groups unwilling to simply wait for full-service grocery stores to break ground and address the crisis. Instead, they’re collaborating to tackle a problem so complex that it calls for creative, multi-faceted solutions.A big problem is how advocates define the issue--"a grocery store within one-half mile walking distance" otherwise it's a food desert--is counter to how the industry is organized.
And what all these local initiatives share is a repudiation of backwards stereotypes that suggest the poor aren’t interested in fresh food.
“Politicians across the country and citizens have been perniciously stereotyping, allowing cities to take no action because they’ve vilified low-income folks,” Biel says. “We’ve seen lines a hundred deep of people waiting in 100-degree weather to get $10 to spend on fruits and veggies. There’s lots of interest in healthy food, but healthy food does not exist in these neighborhoods.”
Indeed, food options east of the river are dominated by corner stores and carryouts because they are cheap to operate. At a carryout, food goes from freezer to fryer, requiring little labor and producing little waste. “This leads to extreme disparities in diet-related health outcomes,” says Philip Sambol, director of partnerships for Good Food Markets, which is planning a new location in Ward 8. “You can have obesity rates five times higher in wards without access to fresh food.”
Supermarkets are set up to market and sell food within a 5 mile radius retail trade area, although in cities the RTAs tend to be smaller. Not to mention the fact that carrying a lot of groceries while walking, even with a cart, is a major pain in the butt.
Looking at Ward 7, we can say there are 2-3 major travel corridors to and from the core of the city--Benning Road (H Street), East Capitol, and Pennsylvania Avenue. The H Street/Benning and Pennsylvania corridors are nearby primary retail arteries.
H Street/Benning corridor. If you take the Benning Road Metrorail Station as a center point for calculating a retail trade area--a four mile radius is just a few blocks short of the Walmart at New Jersey Avenue NE, but along the X2 bus line on H Street/Benning Road, within the four mile radius you can reach four other grocery stores:
- Harris Teeter Supermarket (1st and M Streets NE)
- Giant Supermarket (300 block of H Street)
- Safeway (Hechinger Mall, Maryland Avenue)
- Aldi (901 17th Street)
It is relatively easy to stop at a grocery on the way home via the bus (although still a pain to carry groceries while walking or maneuvering on transit).
Frankly, the only store that people might want to access that won't be located within that corridor is a Wegman's.
Since that study, Safeway has significantly increased pricing and reduced the pricing attractiveness of their weekly specials. Aldi's prices are about 40% lower, cheaper than Walmart in fact. Giant is cheaper than Safeway, and Trader Joe's pricing, depending on the items, tends to be higher than Giant.
Ward 7 residents having access to Aldi can save a lot of money compared to traditional grocery stores. (I shop there regularly myself, mostly for produce and standard items like milk, cream cheese, and other staples.)
In short, Walmart not opening a store in Ward 7 isn't the end of the world.
Delivery of food-customers. Note that the PanAm International Latino Market on 14th Street NW and the Megamart Latino markets in the suburbs will drive a customer home so long as they purchase $50 in food.
DC's new jitney type transit service in Wards 7 and 8, called Neighborhood Ride Service by Taxis, could be adjusted to include travel to and from grocery stores in nearby Ward 6.
Were I working on supermarket recruitment efforts in Wards 7 and 8, I would consider trying to land PanAm or Megamart because of their willingness to drive people home.
Another option for nonprofits would be to create their own equivalent of Instacart.
Others support the creation of mobile food sales, using buses ("Bringing food to people as a response to food deserts," 2011).
Conclusion: access has multiple meanings. Although there is no question that we should work towards expanding grocery sales options in Ward 7, taking proximity and transit access into consideration, based on how the supermarket industry is organized, Ward 7 residents have a wider range of access to supermarkets than most residents elsewhere across the metropolitan region.
(Biking is an option too, although I'll admit sometimes bags have broken on the trip, which is never fun...)
Technically, I live in a food desert because no store is within a one-half mile walking distance--the Walmart (I don't shop there) is 3/4 mile away, and a Safeway and a Giant are both 1.25 miles away in different directions.
But since I bicycle, getting to various supermarkets is no big deal, especially since I plan supermarketing around my various trips to and from the core, such as at the stores clustered around H Street on my way home from doing things in the Capitol Hill/Downtown area.