Feature Documentary

Miss Laverne thanked 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.

Laverne Preston lives in Southeast Washington DC. in the Washington Highlands neighborhood and she is a senior citizen. Her apartment smelled musty; she was burning incense so it would have that smell. She had pictures covering all of the flat surfaces in her apartment and stuffed animals spilling over the couch.

Her neighborhood is in Ward 8. This ward has the fewest grocery stores of any ward (three for a population of about 74,000, which is around the average number of residents per ward 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.

Miss Laverne held out at arm’s length a sweet potato that she had planted, like a kid excited that her science project had grown. The potato had sprouted long, green vines and leaves; it was in a container about the size of a frozen TV dinner. Miss Laverne says that she plants the potatoes if she can’t eat them before they sprout, and she points to another one that looks rotten and should probably be thrown away. The potted potato 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.

She bought the sweet potato from the Mobile Market, a traveling produce stand that parks outside of her building. Benjamin Bartley, the Mobile Market director, drives around the District in a repurposed school bus selling fresh produce in neighborhoods like Miss Laverne’s. On Mondays, he makes two stops in Washington Highlands.

Shopping at the local grocery store is too expensive for Miss Laverne on her food stamp budget. 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 a large bag of food with her food vouchers.

The value of her vouchers is doubled at places like the Mobile Market; for $5 in vouchers, Miss Laverne can get $10 of food. Bartley says vouchers, such as E.B.T. and WIC, account for 40% of their income.

Bartley says the whole idea for the Mobile Market is to “bring the market to where there isn’t one.” The Mobile Market exists because there are no other options for buying fresh produce; his is the only traveling produce stand.

The bus is bright green with giant letters on the side spelling out Arcadia Mobile Market. Most of their fresh produce comes from Arcadia Farms in Virginia, and in addition to fruits and vegetables, the Mobile Market sells meat, eggs and bottles of milk. 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 plump tomatoes.
Washington Highlands is not USDA-defined as a food desert: an area with little or no access to full-size grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. However, Washington Highlands is one of the many neighborhoods that deals with the struggles of inadequate food access without recognition as a “food desert.”

There are seven USDA-defined food deserts in DC, comprised of 11 neighborhoods. For one reason or another, residents in these neighborhood do not have sufficient access to healthy food. In cities, corner stores often replace full-size grocery stores, providing residents a convenient place to shop. They sell essentials like paper products and processed foods, and residents often do a majority of their grocery shopping there. The corner store in Washington Highlands, however, cannot afford to carry fresh produce and has been struggling to do so for over a year.

“Nowadays everybody’s conscience what to eat, everybody’s trying to eat healthy food… especially a lot of people who have diabetic issues,” says Aki Berhe, co-owner of Wheeler Market in Washington Highlands. “We, as the store owners, get what the public wants.”

He and his co-owner Muller Woldeabezghi understand the needs of the community and have been trying to figure out a way to carry more healthy food.

“Basically when [residents] need small things they go to a corner store… for something that they can put it in the microwave and eat it, it is selling good. The ones that we bring in, you know, beans, broccoli, all the frozen items, it didn’t go as fast as what we were hoping,” says Woldeabezghi.

“We are the closest where we can provide a lot of grocery here in this community, we are the only one. Most convenient store in this area are the mainstream, which means is buying quick stuff… when everybody comes in we ask them what they wanna have, and they come back again, so they tell us we want this, we want this, we can get it from Tiger Market, from Giants or whatever, and we say that we can provide it here… But for the nutritional, healthy stuff, that is something that we were trying to go slowly. And that is something that is a little bit of a challenge.”

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 epidemics in neighborhoods like Washington Highlands; people who shop on food stamp-budgets buy cheap food that lasts longer. The same is true for customers and corner stores: neither can afford fresh produce because it goes bad quickly.

“[Corner stores] are where people have to do their grocery shopping… 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, president and co-founder of the CAFB, about to retire after 43 years of working on hunger issues.

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. She sat with her back against that red wall and talked about the relief that retiring would provide her from the daily struggles of helping those in need. Even though she loved the work she did, it was hard work every day.

“We used to have a farmers market in Southeast Washington but we couldn’t get people to come… 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 said 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.

“Businesses are driven by profit, which is good because that ultimately provides jobs for people, but businesses look at the demographics about where they can best make their company viable,” says Brantley. 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. Washington Highlands is in the lowest percentile of walkability for neighborhoods in the city. Because Washington Highlands is not an attractive neighborhood to a prospective business, not many businesses move in, including grocery stores.

The closest grocery stores to the residents of Washington Highlands are over a mile away, too far to get to without a car. 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 cover the distance to get groceries. The closest grocery store is technically in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is perhaps why, when asked which grocery store residents shopped at, none of them said that one.

Inside the grocery store the walls were covered with pictures. Not Christmas card poses or barbecue sauce-covered smiles, but mugshots and missing persons reports. The fluorescent lighting overhead made everything look yellow, including the food. All of the fruit was canned, the meat was vacuum-sealed and the freezer shelves were empty. This grocery store was simply a bigger version of a corner store. This grocery store carried the same products as the corner stores; they just carried more.

Last year, the federal government gave DC Central Kitchen a grant to supply corner stores with fresh produce at discounted costs. When distributors have bananas that are ripe today, they can’t sell them tomorrow, so DCCK buys those bananas at a low cost and then sells them to corner stores at that same low cost.

“It’s not just about the proximity to the grocery store as much as it is what they have,” said Lindsey Palmer, director of Nutrition and Community Outreach at Healthy Corners, an initiative from DC Central Kitchen. “We might say, ‘oh, well there is a grocery store… two miles from most folks,’ but when you actually get there and see what’s on the shelves, it’s pretty sad.”

When a particular neighborhood has only one place to shop, “then there’s no competition, and when there’s no competition, you don’t care what people pay,” said Palmer. “Nobody can possibly care about the people in that area… look at what they’re putting on the shelves.”

“If you’re driving then there are choices to go. But if you are walking, you’re stuck where you are, so basically, if you go within the mile range, there’s nothing.” says Berhe. “If we wanna eat something in this area we have to go a mile and a half, to be able to eat any kind of food, that’s a shortage of restaurants to eat… We wanna make sure that we are investing in this area. So we think that’s a good business, at the same, that’s what the community needs.”

“Part of it is,” says Woldeabezghi, “do I want to provide something that I can consume myself? Let’s give them that option, and see if it works or not.”

“We need to kind of uproot the food system and food deserts and say the problem is there’s no access, that people cant get [fresh produce]… that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Palmer.