The word “desert” brings to mind barren landscapes devoid of life — an image many consider the complete opposite of Washington, D.C.’s bustling streets and vibrant communities. Nonetheless, food deserts, or regions without access to the food groups that make up a healthy diet, constitute about 11% of the city’s geography. Their existence is not only indicative of absent grocery stores, but also sheds light on a multitude of contributing factors. For example, food deserts are exacerbated by weak transportation infrastructure, primarily affect majority Black communities and result in a lack of access to healthy food options, which leads to diet-based diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Addressing food insecurity requires responding to its systemic causes as well as developing a new approach to food distribution. The D.C. government must work to eliminate food deserts through expanding public transportation options and promoting cooperative food programs in place of grocery stores.
The D.C. Policy Center defines a region as a food desert if the walking distance from a household to a grocery store is more than 0.5 miles, more than 40% of households don’t have access to a vehicle, and the median household income is below 185% of the federal poverty line. By that definition, more than a tenth of the city lacks accessible food. Over two-thirds of food deserts are found in Wards 7 and 8. These wards have majority Black populations, indicating that food poverty is a critical symptom of the growing racial wealth gap in the District.
Among the contributing factors to food deserts are limited transportation options and few grocery stores. Although D.C. is ranked as the seventh most walkable city with a median Walk Score of 76 out of 100, neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 fall short of the citywide median. As a result, residents have significantly worse access to healthy food options. Nearby services like convenience stores and fast food restaurants offer limited selections but do not provide an adequate range of healthy options.
In addition to worse dietary outcomes, residents experiencing food poverty are also more vulnerable to other health crises, including COVID-19. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides monthly funds to purchase groceries, offer very limited online options. As a result, consumers have to regularly visit grocery stores where they have a higher risk of contracting the disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to higher unemployment numbers, which in turn increase rates of food insecurity. This vicious cycle of inaccessibility has left households with few options to keep their families safe and healthy.
To fill the gap, policymakers must implement alternative solutions to expand healthy food options. One initiative that has recently gained traction is cooperative food programs, grocery stores owned and run entirely by community members. Since co-ops aren’t focused on generating profit, prices can be lower and workers are often employed from the surrounding region. In the District, the Community Grocery Co-op works to open stores across the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. However, each store requires a certain number of fee-paying members in order to run, which means they are often slow to open in low-income communities. If the government provides funding to cooperative grocery stores, they would be able to lower their membership fees and significantly shorten the development period. The innovative organizational structure of co-ops allows them to serve areas that private grocery stores deem unprofitable.
Even with increased store options, traveling to these locations remains a long, often expensive process. Creating walkable streets and increasing public transportation options are key steps to closing the food distribution gap.
The myriad issues contributing to food deserts mean that reaching a solution is a complex and long-term process. By steadily working to expand grocery store options and transportation methods, communities will be better equipped to serve the needs of every resident.
Angela Yu is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. District Discourse is published every other week.