The Capital’s food deserts
March 14th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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The restaurants and grocery stores in the District of Columbia provide residents, workers and visitors with ample access to healthy, seasonal foods. As a result, it’s hard for many people to imagine the stark contrast to many of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods, which have little or no daily access to fresh food.

According to the D.C. Department of Health, 55% of District residents are overweight or obese - including nearly half of all children. In some neighborhoods, the rate of overweight and obesity exceeds 70%. Lack of access to healthy food options in the lowest income communities has been cited as a major contributor to the crisis.

Washington D.C. is broken into several wards. Many of the visitors and residents who buy food in the District will most likely chow down and shop in Wards 6 or 2, or in Chinatown, Georgetown or on Capitol Hill, where many restaurants and niche supermarkets exist.

dc food map
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Residents in Southeast Washington - Wards 7 and 8 - have the least access to fresh food and grocery stores.

Because of these so-called “food deserts,” the city council took action and passed the “FEED DC Act” in 2010. Among other things, the act was designed to help ensure access to fresh, unprocessed foods in Washington’s lowest income communities.

Joelle Johnson is the local initiative and procurement coordinator for D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), an organization that uses food as a tool to strengthen the overall community.

Johnson spearheads DCCK’s “Healthy Corners” campaign to get fresh products to 30 local “corner stores” around the District's food deserts. The organization teamed up with the Department of Small and Local Business Development in Washington, and secured a grant for $300,000, to help jump start the campaign and ultimately get fresh fruits and vegetables to the corner stores in the wards that needed it most.

“DCCK has added new products to the shelves such as red peppers, red onions and grapefruit.” Johnson says. "Our catering department makes banana bread using bananas that didn't sell, and homemade applesauce with local apples instead of oil.”

This also takes away much of the leg work from the local stores by delivering the produce to them directly.

“Our program is about education, outreach, we try to do a little bit of everything. We are taking a preventive approach to a poor diet,” Johnson says.

By taking these measures, they are hoping to stem the increase in citizens with diet-related health issues. It’s just one piece of the puzzle and DCCK is excited about the response thus far.

“Seniors at one complex in D.C., where one of our corner stores exists, are thrilled. They’re thankful for the program coming to the building,” Johnson explains. “One woman in particular hopes the program could make its way into more senior centers, so that other seniors would have the same kind of access to food she has.”

DCCK's outreach program is impressive, even recently sending a nutrition outreach coordinator to all corner stores involved in the program. The coordinator would pass out samples of a simple sweet potato dish with a corresponding recipe card that included serving suggestions like: “to be put on top of rice or salad," or "can be served hot or cold.”

This kind of outreach is intended to make it easy for those wanting to change their eating habits but don’t know quite where to start.

“The biggest role DCCK is playing is to serve as an aggregate, and to have an affordable option for residents," says Johnson.

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Filed under: Food Deserts • Food Politics • News • Think • Video

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Ben Frankly

    My neighborhood has great access to fresh food. A weekly famers market and great corner stores and restaurants. However, I see rich people eating fast food and I know vegetarians who don’t eat fruit or vegetables.

    March 15, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Ben Frankly

      Please don't point out the fact that I am missing an "R" in farmers. Thank you!

      March 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
      • Fren Bankenstein

        Hey! You're missing the "r" in "farmers."

        March 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
        • Ben Frankly

          LOL! Thanks ...

          March 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  2. Jeff Brechbuhl

    This is a fantastic initiative and I am very pleased that the D.C. Department of Health is considering Healthy Living, Inc. to lead the initiative to provide cooking demos based upon the fresh produce available at these stores. Healthy Living is the local expert at working with resource-challenged individuals to learn how to prepare healthy, nutritional, simple and delicious meals on a limited budget. Their work, which includes job training for homeless and low-skilled women, youth and family programs, and public cooking demos, needs more support from the D.C. community!

    March 15, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  3. Sir Biddle

    Being a DC resident, I can honestly say this map is out of date as the representation of "poverty" areas was done using 12 year old data. While I agree there needs to be a better emphasis on obtaining fresh/better foods for everyone, you are asking a segment of the population to change their eating habits. This behavior change will take a looooonnnnngggg time.

    March 15, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Count Veggie

      Cant agree with you more Sir. The problem does not lie with the lack of fresh food options in the "lower income" wards, but with the eating habits of the residents. Whats easier, buying $40 worth of healthy groceries that will feed a family for 2-3 days, or buying fast food items. A paradigm shift will take years to complete and millions of dollars spent.

      March 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. LarryHCrawford

    But for many hardworking families, affordable insurance can be hard to find. The new "Penny Health" is giving you more control over your family’s health care by expanding your options for health insurance and making them more affordable.

    March 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
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