“I have gotten off the bus before because two or three people didn’t have a mask on.”
How Southeast D.C. shoppers navigated a separate and unequal food system under strain.
.“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.
AdvertisementWhile 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.
Advertisementcreating 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, headtopics.com
shows that Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest percentage of residents who have been fully vaccinated (9 and 7 percent, respectively).AdvertisementAll 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. hasa robust networkof 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.
AdvertisementAdvertisement“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 headtopics.com
to offer rides to 24 grocery stores in and around Wards 7 and 8 for the price of bus fare.)AdvertisementMichael 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.
AdvertisementAdvertisement“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.” headtopics.com
AdvertisementWithout 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.
AdvertisementA 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 theyneeded 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.
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