When Marvena Alston’s alternator went out on her car back in the fall, she only had to rely on D.C.’s buses to get her groceries for about a week. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t an extended inconvenience—unlike when she got two flats in March. That time, her car was out of commission for three or four weeks, which “kind of took me for a loop.”
Alston, who is in her early 60s, lives in Southeast D.C., and the closest full-service grocery store is the Giant on Alabama Avenue, which is about a mile away from her on a straight line but twice that far by the available foot route. It’s too far for Alston to walk, and the wait for the bus, when she’s had to rely on it, is frustrating. On a normal trip, she would wait for 30 to 45 minutes just to catch the bus to the store. But there were days when Alston would wait an hour.
“I’ve been outside when two buses have passed me by because they were crowded,” she said. “Sometimes they stop a little further up and let people off if they want to get off. And sometimes if they don’t have anybody that wants to get off, they just don’t stop.”
Sometimes the ride home is about 15 minutes shorter, but typically it takes her just as long to get back home. The 60- to 90-minute round trip doesn’t include the time spent in the store. When the bus did show up, sometimes Alston couldn’t get on it because it was jampacked. There were times when she just didn’t feel comfortable hopping on a crowded bus due to the close contact with others—some of whom weren’t wearing a mask. (“I have gotten off the bus before because two or three people didn’t have a mask on,” she said.)
In order to get her groceries home, Alston uses two big plastic shopping bags. She puts one bag on each shoulder and she can only carry so much, which means she has to go back to the store at least two more times.
Researchers define a food desert in D.C. as an area where there is no full-service grocery store within a half-mile and where 40 percent of the households don’t have a car. Median income in these areas must also be less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. A 2017 data analysis from the D.C. Policy Center found that more than half of those affected live in Ward 8 while 31 percent reside in Ward 7. More than 91 percent of the residents in both wards are Black.
“Desert,” however, doesn’t adequately explain the issue. It focuses too narrowly on what’s missing from an area versus what is intentionally inaccessible to the residents who live there. Wards 7 and 8 aren’t barren lands with no food sources. There is a plethora of fast-food options and corner stores. The problem is that fresh, nutritious foods are not available, nor are they accessible, a result of deliberate, exclusionary policy decisions—such as supermarkets consciously avoiding neighborhoods they consider unprofitable—that have placed Black residents in Wards 7 and 8 within a system of food apartheid.
“There’s something illogical to me about putting three or four grocery stores around people who are so affluent they could get to any distance they wanted to go, and yet not doing that for people who we know have transportation challenges,” said George Jones, the CEO of Bread for the City, a local organization that works to fight poverty and the burden that systemic racism places on people of color.
While there are some communities that have a few corner stores where residents can get fresh fruits and vegetables from, the overall lack of access to full-service grocery stores is a symptom of a much larger problem. “We just haven’t dealt with the root of this issue, which is the long history of oppression and disadvantage that’s created this extreme poverty,” added Jones.
Food apartheid coincides with other structural inequalities, and they all play a role in creating disparate health outcomes. The same residents have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Seventy-five percent of those who have died in D.C. from COVID-19 are Black, despite Black people making up 46 percent of the city’s total population, based on the most recent mortality data from the city. Ward 8 has seen the highest death rate, with 206 residents dying since the city began tracking data last year. Despite the disparate impact, city data shows that Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest percentage of residents who have been fully vaccinated (9 and 7 percent, respectively).
All of this compounded during the pandemic. Lack of retail options, the burden of unreliable transportation, and not having the extra income to pay for a ride-share collided with loss of income and reduced bus schedules and extended wait times, making it even more difficult for residents to meet their food needs. There was also the fear of catching COVID-19.
D.C. has a robust network of nonprofits and mutual aid groups that work to combat food insecurity, including D.C. Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners initiative, D.C. Greens, Dreaming Out Loud, D.C. UrbanGreens, and Kyanite Kitchen, to name a few. Bread for the City quickly realized that people were going to have a harder time accessing food. So the organization started to deliver groceries.
“It was common for us to serve some 5,000 households a month before the pandemic, but we had weeks where we were reaching over 5,000 people,” said Jones. “I don’t know that we ever hit a month where we ended up with 20,000, but we were well over 10,000 households in some of the busiest months.”
Radha Muthiah, the president of Capital Area Food Bank, reported a similar story. Prior to the pandemic, the food bank was providing food to up to 400,000 people who were food-insecure in their coverage area, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia. After the pandemic started, the food bank was providing food to 600,000 people at some points. (Up until June 30, Capital Food Bank partnered with Lyft to offer rides to 24 grocery stores in and around Wards 7 and 8 for the price of bus fare.)
Michael G. Wilkerson isn’t supposed to carry more than 10 pounds. The 59-year-old, who lives in Ward 8, is disabled, and taking the bus to the grocery store limits what he’s able to get home. When the pandemic threw the bus schedule out of whack, Wilkerson had to figure out a new way to get food. So he contacted Bread for the City, which he’s relied on since 2008, to get the supplemental groceries delivered to his door each week. It was easier than him going out himself, because while he could take the long, four-hour trip to the store—two hours of which he said was spent on the bus—he’d have to rely on his brother or daughter to pick him up.
“And they live in Maryland,” he said. “I’ve had to catch a cab from the grocery store when I don’t have those rides available. The buses don’t help because I’d have to transfer three times—three times!—and pretty much go all the way around my house just to get to my house.”
At times, it’s easier for Wilkerson to go to the Giant at the Eastover Shopping Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland, because at least it takes just one bus. If he wanted to go to the Giant or the Safeway inside the district lines, he’d have to deal with the transfers and the unmanageable distance between the next bus stops.
“I have to think about me doing one-stop shopping,” he said. “If Dollar Tree has my pricing and they have a Giant over there [at Eastover], I can hit two stores and get all everything I want. But then I need that ride because I can’t carry that stuff. Trying to get it on the bus myself is cumbersome. But that would be the easiest route for me. I’ve tried it before, but know I can’t do that all the time.”
Without assistance, Wilkerson would need to go to the store two or three times a week as well. And when he does get there with help, he tries to shop for the month.
Food apartheid in D.C. spans decades, according to Dominique Hazzard, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University who studies racism and food history. She’s lived in Ward 8 for seven years and worked with several food justice organizations in the city.
Hazzard’s research looks at how communities aided one another to mitigate food injustices in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Southeast D.C., where structural issues such as segregation and racialized poverty created the issue and gentrification magnified it. When Black residents were facing displacement, the loss of grocery stores, and other food injustices—like price gouging—those stores were boycotted, she explained. People in the community saw food access as a human right; they demanded policy changes and that the city intervene to ensure everyone could eat.
A similar push occurred in the late 1980s and the 1990s, during the HIV/AIDS crisis. One complication of the disease was wasting syndrome, which refers to someone losing more than 10 percent of their body weight because they needed more calories to sustain themselves. (This complication is less common now due to antiretroviral therapy.) Hazzard found during her research that part of the protests on the local and federal level were about guaranteeing the food people needed in order to be as healthy as possible.
Both movements resulted in a mutual aid boom. When the coronavirus pandemic started last year, Hazzard recalls that the D.C. Mutual Aid Network “blew up overnight” and became a visible, organized way of helping residents survive.
“We’re seeing the same thing today during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the movement around the grocery gaps in the city has really been hot since 2015,” said Hazzard. “The pandemic really put a spotlight on it and amplified what Black people in D.C. who experience food insecurity have been saying for years and years. And everybody else experienced the food system breaking down and experienced not being able to get the food that they wanted.”
Sometimes, Marvena Alston helps an elderly neighbor of hers get groceries. She’s also on Capital Food Bank’s Client Leadership Council. There are days when a walk to the corner store will suffice, but the options are limited.
Wilkerson said subpar groceries are a general problem in Southeast: “Just imagine a truck dropping off the good food in Northwest and then coming over to Southeast and dropping off the bad food—and knowing it’s bad. The meat is not good. None of it is good.” He added that he does prefer the Giant on Alabama Avenue because of its initiative to increase access to nutritious foods, but there’s no direct route from his house, so he doesn’t go regularly.
But even when nutritious items are available, that doesn’t change the fact that a key factor in food access is pricing. Muthiah shared an anecdote about a client who explained why even if there is a neighborhood grocer with fresh kale in the produce section for $4, it’s just not going to go as far as three boxes of pasta and a bottle of sauce.
“’I’ve got many mouths to feed. Obviously I’m going to choose the pasta and the sauce. I can’t choose that tiny bunch of kale. Although I know how nutritious that kale is going to be, it’s just not going to fill anyone’s stomach,’” Muthiah recounted. “When this client said that they’re not real choices … I’ll never forget that because that’s absolutely true when you’re put in that circumstance. Even though that’s the healthier choice, it just doesn’t make sense for you.”
Muthiah added that she’s also had clients who bemoan the idea that Black people experiencing food apartheid don’t know how to eat healthy or won’t make that choice if it were available and affordable.
“For the funds that they do have, they just don’t have great choices,” said Muthiah.
When Alston has her car, the grocery trips are much quicker and more robust. She can get more stuff and get her groceries back home in the time it takes her just to get to the store on the bus. Alston can also go to multiple stores in order to maximize savings and product quality. But the fact that she has to run around to different stores to find the best prices and adequate produce—and those stores being located farther from her home—increases the chances of her being exposed to COVID-19. Plus, it’s time-consuming.
“If there was a grocery store in my community that offered a lot of fresh produce, because that is something that we want our kids to eat instead of a lot of candy, sweets, potato chips and things like that … it would definitely be a big benefit to our community that we could definitely use,” said Alston.