Explore Washington Highlands

There are seven USDA-defined food deserts in DC, comprised of 11 neighborhoods. Many more than that struggle with issues of food scarcity, like Washington Highlands in Ward 8. This Ward has the highest rate of diabetes, the second highest rate of obesity and the fewest grocery stores of any Ward in the District. In cramped cities, corner stores often replace full-size grocery stores, providing residents a convenient place to shop. The corner store in Washington Highlands, however, cannot afford to carry fresh produce and has been struggling to do so for over a year. My thesis, Deserts in the District, documents one neighborhood, its local economy, its food access, and several residents who all live with food scarcity.

I met Miss Laverne through the Mobile Market, a traveling produce stand sponsored by Arcadia Farms in Virginia. I was driving around with the Mobile Market and we stopped at the apartment building that Miss Laverne lived in. Laverne Preston, 66, is a senior citizen who lives in a senior community. She has high blood pressure and after being a member of Weight Watchers for a year lost about 40 lbs. Miss Laverne is retired and receives E.B.T., formerly known as food stamps. She relies on rides from neighbors in her building to drive her to one of several food pantries nearby, as is often the case with residents living in low-income communities. Fortunately for her, the Mobile Market sells in front of her building once a week during the growing season so she has more than once-monthly access to fresh produce.

Preston represents only one of the many ways food deserts affect residents in low-income areas. The issues surrounding food deserts are important for a number of reasons, only one of which being the immediate and serious impact on residents’ lives. Other than the direct health consequences, like obesity and diabetes, food deserts are also tied very closely to economy. Low-income areas tend to be less economically developed, and therefore grocery stores and other businesses would rather take their business where there’s more opportunity for profit. Because businesses move out of low-income areas, local economy suffers, thus aggravating the issue. Lynn Brantley, Co-founder of the Capital Area Food Bank, says this is a main reason why fixing food deserts long-term proves difficult. Better access to federal assistance programs will provide more residents with food stamps, which will also help stimulate local economy. But Ward 8 has had the highest number of food stamp recipients for the last ten years.

Locally, CAFB is just one of several organizations working to change food access and help develop low-income neighborhoods. Lindsey Palmer, Director of Nutrition and Community Outreach at DC Central Kitchen, says there’s more to changing a community than simply giving people food: “You want to give them an opportunity to change themselves, and also show others how easy it is actually to change once you’ve decided to take that path.” Because of a grant from the federal government, DCCK was able to provide the help to low-income communities through their program Healthy Corners.

“Local and federal government helped significantly when they plugged “about $50,000 worth of Bonus Bucks into farmers markets,” says Benjamin Bartley of the Mobile Market. That money from the government allowed his customers to double the value of their food vouchers (WIC, EBT, SNAP). More policy and legislative changes like this one need to take place, as well as better incentive for corner stores to carry fresh produce, says Bartley. But despite these efforts, food deserts and hunger still persist in some communities.