The first time I met Miss Laverne she was thanking the driver of the Mobile Market for remembering her special order: spicy hummus. She rides her bike when there’s good weather, goes to the gym in her building, and she joined Weight Watchers last year. Even though she lives in an area where many people don’t have healthy diets because of their neighborhood restrictions, Miss Laverne tries her hardest to make do with what she’s got.
When my brother and I were little and my mom was a single mother, we went to Denny’s for dinner as a special treat. I always ordered the same thing: a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. We’d lived with my grandparents for a while and we didn’t have much money, so it was exciting to get those waffles, that mound of warmth and sweetness. My mother usually prepared a well-balanced meal; all the food groups were represented. We’d have to be “members of the clean plate club” in order to be excused from the table. I still get excited whenever I pass a Denny’s on the street.
Laverne Preston’s apartment looks like my grandmother’s house. Actually, it smells like my grandmother’s house. I couldn’t place it, but it smelled musty. She told me almost immediately that she was burning incense so it would have that smell. When I met her she insisted that I call her Miss Laverne. She is a senior living in an apartment building in Southeast Washington D.C. in the Washington Highlands neighborhood. She has pictures covering all of the flat surfaces in her apartment, incense burning, and stuffed animals spilling over the couch.
Washington Highlands is in Ward 8. This ward has the fewest grocery stores of any ward (only three for a population of about 74,000, about the average number of residents compared to other wards but half as many grocery stores). It also has the highest rate of diabetes and the second highest rate of obesity of any ward in the District. The average D.C. resident lives 10 blocks away from a full grocery store so I decided to see how far Miss Laverne lived from hers, knowing that there were so few in her ward. I started with Miss Laverne’s apartment in the center, and photographed her neighborhood in a ten-block radius outward.
My closest grocery store is a mile away, and more expensive than I can afford in downtown D.C. I am a full time student and a part time photographer. I don’t have a car and I worry every trip how much can I afford this week and how much can I carry all the way back to my apartment?
I’ve lived in many cities throughout my life and it’s a common problem; in small areas with lots of people and limited space, and where residents are discouraged from owning cars, you must rely on public transportation or your own two feet to get groceries. I don’t have much money, but I am certainly more fortunate than someone who relies solely on food stamps and isn’t in good enough health to walk, like I am. Miss Laverne is an example of someone like that.
In her apartment, Miss Laverne holds out at arm’s length a sweet potato that she has planted, like a kid excited that her science project has grown. The potato is sprouting long, green vines and leaves; it’s in a container about the size of a frozen T.V. dinner. Miss Laverne says that she plants the potatoes if she can’t eat them before they sprout, and she points to one that looks rotten and should probably be thrown away. A potted potato was the last thing I expected to see in her apartment. It seemed to symbolize all of her struggles and hopes; a few magic beans that, when planted, would grow and lead to a meal and a bag of gold.
Miss Laverne bought the sweet potato from the Mobile Market, a traveling produce stand that parks outside of her building on Mondays. Benjamin Bartley, the Mobile Market director, drives around the District in an old school bus selling fresh produce in neighborhoods like Miss Laverne’s. On Mondays, he makes two stops in Washington Highlands.
When I asked Miss Laverne where she usually grocery shops, she didn’t mention shopping at the local grocery store. She’s retired and the grocery stores are too expensive. The Mobile Market stops outside of her building every week during growing season and in the winter months she goes to local food banks when she can get a ride from neighbors. A trip to the Capital Area Food Bank means Miss Laverne can get two bags of food with her food vouchers. And the value of her vouchers is doubled at places like the Mobile Market; for $5 in vouchers, Miss Laverne can get $10 of food. It was only after documenting this project for three months that I began to realize that this is an issue of access and affordability: yes, there are not nearly enough grocery stores to feed everyone, but the grocery stores are expensive and residents often look for cheaper alternatives.
Bartley says the whole idea for the Mobile Market is to “bring the market to where there isn’t one.” His is the only traveling produce stand.
Each week that I’d been riding around with the Mobile Market their produce changed. They get most of their food from their farm in Virginia; everything was fresh and smelled sweet and earthy. Bartley sells meat, eggs, and bottles of milk in addition to fruits and vegetables. The bus is bright green with giant letters on the side spelling out Acadia Mobile Market, and, at the stops, Bartley fastens four metal racks to the side of the bus and loads up the shelves with wooden crates of leafy greens, purple turnips, and yellow tomatoes.
Standing next to the bus, Bartley tells me that the local and federal government helped his business when they plugged “about $50,000 worth of Bonus Bucks into farmers markets, … a linchpin for my whole operation.” Bonus Bucks allow his customers to double the value of their food vouchers, and Bartley says that vouchers account for 40% of his Mobile Market income.
Before I began my walk around Miss Laverne’s neighborhood, I expected to find lots of fast food chains and corner stores, typical of rest stops and gas station mini marts. After all, the Mobile Market existed for a reason.
A corner store is a smaller version of a grocery store, much smaller. Typically, they sell essentials like paper products and preservative foods. In a city where there’s not a lot of space, corner stores often replace full-sized grocery stores. Since corner stores are small, there are more of them, and often residents do a majority of their grocery shopping there. I shopped at corner stores on a regular basis; the convenience of buying food, even though it was individually priced and more expensive, was worth traveling a shorter distance to buy.
The food stores on every corner sold mostly boxed and canned food, 2-liter sodas and candy. The corner stores in Miss Laverne’s neighborhood looked a lot like the convenience stores near my apartment downtown.
“Nothing too surprising,” I thought. “Looks a lot like my CVS down the street.”
The ability to walk to places nearby like businesses, schools, and grocery stores is what makes the District the 7th most walkable city in the United States. It was not until I got home and started putting my pictures on a map that I saw that there were not very many stores at all in Congress Heights, especially not in relation to how many people live in there.
When I saw Tiger Market on my walk I was surprised. Tiger Market was a grocery store inside my circle. Miss Laverne lived closer to her grocery store than I did to mine.
The first thing I noticed about Tiger Market was the wall covered with pictures inside the entrance. Not Christmas card poses or barbecue sauce-covered smiles, but mug shots and missing persons. I must have I looked lost to the straight-faced security guard; I was standing right inside of the door, unsure which way to turn first. I made a mental note to adjust the settings on my camera because the fluorescent lighting was going to make my pictures look yellow.
All of the food looked yellow, too, because of the lighting. I walked to the end of the produce aisle and through the rest of the store. All of the fruit was canned, the meat was vacuum-sealed and the freezer shelves were empty. And then I understood the statistics; this grocery store was simply a bigger version of a corner store. Tiger Market carried the same products as the small food stores that I had passed on my walk; Tiger Market just carried more of them.
Looking at a stand of 99¢ boxes of doughnuts, I felt sad. I knew that many of the people who live here didn’t have a choice of where to shop; this was their local grocery store. All of the grocery stores that I had ever shopped at had more selection than this. Even when I lived in rural Mississippi, in a town of 10,000 people, the Wal-Mart, which also had fluorescent lighting, had many rows of fresh produce and a seafood counter.
The added expense of stocking fresh food is not always financially beneficial for stores. Getting residents to buy fresh food is just as important as getting stores to carry the fresh produce. Diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure are higher in neighborhoods like Miss Laverne’s because the people that shop on a food stamp budget buy cheap food that lasts longer, like canned fruit packaged in sugar syrup instead of fresh fruit that costs more.
“[Corner stores] are where people have to do their grocery shopping… you don’t get healthy food and you don’t get good nutritious food, you get cheap food. I mean, something is better than nothing, but you don’t have access to good, affordable, fresh, wholesome food, and that’s what happens in many, many poor neighborhoods,” says Lynn Brantley. Last week I read a Washington Post article about Brantley, president and co-founder of the CAFB. She was about to retire as President after 43 years working on hunger issues, and so I hurried to get an interview with her.
Her office was empty except for stacks of boxes. She had one wall painted bright red and she was wearing a red floral print padded jacket. I felt more focused in this interview than I had in others; I was passionate and inquisitive about these issues and I couldn’t wait to know what she knew.
“We used to have a farmers market in Southeast Washington but we couldn’t get people to come, so we had to close it… it just didn’t go and we couldn’t keep doing it,” recalls Brantley. She says educating people so food becomes a health issue, not just a money issue, is one of the most important aspects of changing a food desert. Brantley told me there were more people receiving government assistance now than when she started the CAFB; Ward 8 has had the highest number of food stamp recipients in the city for the last ten years.