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Where Gardens Fill a Supermarket Void

Theresa Henry, left, and Norma Perry at Fort Stanton in Ward 8, which has no grocery stores. Perry grows squash for lasagna, pudding and pies.
Theresa Henry, left, and Norma Perry at Fort Stanton in Ward 8, which has no grocery stores. Perry grows squash for lasagna, pudding and pies. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Lindsay Ryan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

In the community garden at the Fort Stanton senior citizens park in Southeast, sprawling vines with orange flowers bear yellow squash, and necklaces of cherry tomatoes ring cones of wire. Fist-size deep-purple eggplants peek from under leaves, and lumpy pods of black-eyed peas look ready to burst.

There are beans and broccoli, carrots and cantaloupe, collards and cabbage, peppers and peppermint. The corn silk is beginning to brown, so ears of sweet corn will be ready soon, and the watermelon vines are spreading out of control.

For people such as Norma Perry, the garden provides more than a hobby. Gardening is an important source of food for her, because a trip to the supermarket is an event for the 74-year-old Anacostia resident.

In lower-income neighborhoods, gardens and farmers markets provide an alternative to supermarkets, which are few and far between. To get to a grocery store, Perry sometimes has to catch a bus one way and take a cab back, a trip that costs about $8 and takes at least a half-hour longer than it would if she had a car. Other times her daughters take her to Maryland, where "the prices are cheaper and the food is seemingly better," she said.

Perry limits herself to supermarket trips every other week and grows what food she can, spending time in the garden every day. She freezes string beans, peppers and tomatoes for vegetable dishes and stews. But squash is her specialty. She makes squash lasagna, squash pudding, steamed squash, acorn squash pies and squash patties. When she goes to the supermarket, she rarely buys vegetables, she said.

The last full-service supermarket in Ward 8, where Perry lives, was a Safeway on Milwaukee Place near Martin Luther King Avenue SE that closed in 1998 after the company said it was losing $500,000 annually.

"Retailers look at how development is going, income, homeownership rates and construction of new homes," said Aubrey Thagard, the District's Ward 8 planner. "Retailers haven't been fully convinced or understood the potential" in Ward 8, he added, though he cited plans for a new Giant supermarket on Alabama Avenue SE as a sign of a changing tide.

A 1995 study by the Food Marketing Policy Center of 21 major cities found that the lowest-income Zip codes had one-third fewer supermarkets per capita than the highest-income Zip codes.

In areas such as Ward 8, people often buy food from corner stores, which have higher prices and frequently lack fresh produce.

At the Corner Market in the 1400 block of Howard Road SE, a gallon of milk costs $3.99 and a loaf of white bread $1.29. Those items cost $3 and 79 cents, respectively, at the Safeway at Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE. The Corner Market, which is the closest food store to Perry's house, has canned vegetables but does not sell produce or fresh meat, nor does it offer any of the services that a large grocery store provides, such as a pharmacy.

Urban gardens provide an alternative that gardeners say is economical and high in quality. Every dollar invested in a community garden can return $6 worth of vegetables, according to a 1996 federal study.

Betsy Johnson, executive director of the American Community Gardening Association, said the estimated 18,000 urban gardens nationwide represent a rapidly growing sector of the gardening industry.

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