Hunger in D.C.: When Food is Too Far Away, Volunteers Bring Relief

February 9, 2015

Nada Shawish, communications specialist at Islamic Relief USA.

Charles Wynn has two boys, Charles Jr. and Donavan. As a construction worker, his paychecks aren’t always reliable even though he works hard and long hours. Even when he gets paid, buying food for his boys is always a struggle, because there’s no grocery store where he lives in Washington, D.C.—the only nearby options are a convenience store or fast food. Neither one is healthy. Both are expensive.

Courtesy: Islamic Relief USA

Courtesy: Islamic Relief USA

Yet again, in mid-January, a paycheck he was waiting for hadn’t shown up, and that meant no food in the house for his two boys. The boyswere hungry, so he took them across the street to America’s Islamic Heritage Museum. There, Islamic Relief USA staff and volunteers were serving hot meals and distributing groceries for Martin Luther King National Day of Service.

Wynn said the museum staff and humanitarian organizations like Islamic Relief USA regularly try to fill food scarcity and poverty gaps that make life a struggle in Ward 8, southeast Washington, D.C..

“It’s real nice to see these people coming outside to get food because you know, they really need it,” he said. “Some of these people don’t have food for real. So to see them come out, and to see all these people supporting and coming out like you … it’s really amazing.”

Deserts in D.C.

Try to imagine the barrenness of a desert in the city. It’s a different kind of desert— there’s no sand. What’s missing is food—especially good-quality, healthful food. It’s a food desert.

Imagine that where you live, there’s no place to get quality, nutritious groceries for miles around. You have to take a bus to the nearest grocery store—time and bus fare you don’t have.

Imagine you’ve been lucky enough to get a steady job to pay the bills, but money is still tight. You get home tired, after a long day, with just a few dollars in your pocket, and stop at the corner store to find something for your children to eat. There are a few wilting vegetables on one shelf, and packaged foods fill the rest of the small store. You have enough money for two apples, or two boxes of macaroni and cheese with enough left for a bag of chips too. What are you going to buy?

Food deserts are real. And for people like Charles and his sons, they’re an expansive void in a place where there’s high poverty, not enough jobs, and not enough money.

Lingering Void

In 1998, a Safeway grocery store in Ward 8 closed down for good. More than 70,000 residents lost a place within reasonable distance to get groceries and maintain a nutritionally adequate diet. And it’s a void that hasn’t been reasonably filled for more than a decade, leaving only three accessible grocers in an area with the most D.C. residents—just one store for about every 23,000 people.

Compare that to Ward 3, which has 11 full-service stores. Ward 3 also happens to have the highest incomes in the District. Ward 8 has the lowest.

Policy-makers have said that a full-service grocery store is just a mile or two away from every D.C. resident. For some residents, that’s about as accessible as the moon. For those trying to survive on minimum wage incomes, sometimes there’s literally not enough money left to buy food, much less an extra bus fare to go buy that food. And walking isn’t a viable option: One mile is about 10 city blocks, so even a store that’s only a mile away would be a minimum of 20 blocks—carrying groceries on the way home.

It’s part of a cycle that is keeping people disadvantaged and food-insecure. This directly contributes to the D.C.’s most chronic problem: hunger. It indirectly contributes to many health problems and obesity as well.

Filling in the Gaps

“Closing the grocery gap in the District by encouraging more grocers to locate in these areas would help reduce hunger, improve public health and nutrition, reduce costs for low-income residents, and boost the local economy,” said Alexandra Ashbrook, Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.

Until then, local volunteers and organizations are stepping in actively to help.

Courtesy: Islamic Relief USA

Courtesy: Islamic Relief USA

“It brightens this community,” Charles said at the Martin Luther King Day event at the Islamic Heritage Museum. “It puts smiles on people’s faces, you know? It takes people’s minds off some things, at least for the day.”

For Charles, the hot meals and groceries were a blessing. His job failed him this week, but his kids could eat today.

At the event, his oldest son told a volunteer all about how much he liked English class and reading books, how he wants to grow up and be a police officer so that he can help people like the volunteers that day, and how much he likes to play football and loves his little brother. And then he was asked if he liked the food today.

“Yes, I did,” the boy said, nodding enthusiastically. “We don’t eat a whole lot. I was really hungry.”