Are grocery stores enough to ensure healthy food access?

Proximity Does Not Equal Access: Why Grocery Stores Aren’t Enough

Joanna Williams Advocacy & Policy, Urban Agriculture

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Adding more grocery stores to marginalized communities will not solve the food crisis in DC. The solution requires a more nuanced and community-based approach.

There is a healthy food crisis in DC. Less apparent than the gentrification—which ranks number two in the nation and lends itself to the District’s affordable housing crisis—the food access crisis in DC remains nearly invisible to the typical city dweller. When I talk to most people, they have no idea there are two grocery stores for 75,000 people in Ward 7 or that on average nearly one in seven households in DC are food insecure. There are more stats I could list, more ways to describe what is happening, but the takeaway is always this: the inability to access healthy food is an inequitable and unjust way of life for tens of thousands of people in the DC area.

One of the biggest contributors to healthy food inequity in DC is the limited access to food. Put simply, there are people who cannot get to where the healthy food is located. Limited access is not just the distance to grocery stores but also other factors such as affordability, walkability, safety (not just crime but also active construction on the route), bridges, the number of children one has to take with them to the grocery store as well as the distance to closest public transportation.

When a low-income family lives in an area that is a food desert they have to spend more money and time traveling longer distances to access food at full-service grocery stores. They have low access to these spaces. The disparity in access forces many low-income people to spend money and time traveling long distances to access food at full-service grocery stores. In some neighborhoods where full-service stores are absent, shoppers may rely on small corner or convenience stores, which often do not have sufficient healthy food and may charge higher prices for the limited nutritious food available.[1] All of this compounds together to create a host of economic and public health problems.

Many people think that to fix the problem all DC has to do is add more grocery stores to these mostly Black, predominantly low-income neighborhoods. But adding stores does little to help the problem as much as adding gauze to a wound with no healer. The truth is this: proximity to food does not equal access to food.

Living next door to a supermarket does not mean you’re able to afford going there, making purchases and putting meals on the table any more than living next door to a doctor’s office mean you are able to make visits to it. Communities that are underserved, under-resourced, and under the awareness level of the town’s citizens and politicians will not see their situations change by mere additions.

Don’t get me wrong, adding more grocery stores in food deserts certainly does not hurt, but we miss the chance to actually solve the problem by not looking at it from a institutional and systemic standpoint.

Being in proximity to a grocery store is not the same as accessing it. Ask low-income residents in Wards 1, 2, or 3 – where the average income is more than $100k – who are surrounded by Whole Foods, Yes! Markets, and Trader Joe’s. They are closer to more stores; but does that mean they are closer to accessing the food in those stores? Therein lies the problem with many food access “solutions.”

Advocates must dig deeper and get to the roots of the issue, which is ultimately economic disenfranchisement. Those living in food deserts are underemployed, forgotten by their cities governments and given fewer resources to survive than other, wealthier (and many times whiter) neighborhoods. To battle these injustices we must first recognize that marginalized community members already have inherent power to change their circumstances — what we must do is work to remove the mindsets and systems that keep them from exercising it.

There are a number of ways to do that, but I want to focus on a model DOL believes in: urban agriculture, particularly our newest project, The Farm at Kelly Miller. Currently, we are working with community members and community-based partners to establish a 2-acre urban farm, located in Ward 7 behind Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast. The farm would grow healthy, fresh food all year-long for the community using sustainable farming methods. In addition to growing food, the farm will have a commercial kitchen space on site for trainings and talks; community gardening space for training and social connectivity; and composting and cold storage space to support other farms and community gardens in the District.

The Farm at Kelly Miller will be unique in DC because it combines community engagement and capacity building, integrated farm-to-school educational activities, and a hub for food production and distribution. It is located in an area where access to healthy food is crucial. Community members will be able to expand their knowledge and skills around healthy food, and more healthy food will be available to Ward 7 and 8 residents through affordable farmers markets and CSAs and through community gardens and neighbor exchanges. The farm won’t solve all of the Ward 7’s food access issues overnight, but it will plant the seeds for a healthy food future that will be attainable for everyone.

Joanna Williams is an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with Dreaming Out Loud.

  1. There are 16 “healthy corner stores” in Ward 7, according to DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program. A healthy corner store is defined as a corner store in a low-income neighborhood that offers fresh produce in small quantities for residents to purchase.