On Oct. 3, 1998, the last remaining supermarket in Ward 8 closed its doors, leaving many residents, particularly the elderly and those without private transportation, in the lurch.

The departure of supermarkets from lower-income neighborhoods is part of a national trend, reflecting consolidation in the food industry. A network of neighborhood food stores in the cities has been replaced during the past 40 years with mega-stores in the suburbs. Filling the void in low-income neighborhoods are the ice-cream trucks and corner stores, which sell junk food and alcohol at inflated prices.

A study by the Capital Area Community Food Bank found that those living east of the Anacostia River have one-sixth the access to stores selling fresh produce that folks living west of Rock Creek Park do -- and that was before the closing of the Safeway.

Beyond the day-to-day hassle of trying to obtain one of life's basic necessities, the lack of access to fresh vegetables and fruit creates a public health crisis. Washington has one of the country's highest rates of cancer, infant mortality, diabetes and other food-related diseases. Children who go to school after a breakfast of a bag of chips and a coke also don't do so well in school.

So what is to be done? Private, nonprofit efforts are part of the solution. A weekly farmer's market was opened at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia this year by the Capital Area Community Food Bank and others; another is being organized by residents in the Anacostia community of Congress Heights. Community Harvest operates a nonprofit urban farm on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Still these efforts are not large enough to meet the needs of these communities. The D.C. government needs to join forces with nonprofits, businesses, churches, community organizations and others to develop solutions to the crisis in food access.

Unless local officials play an active role, market forces alone are unlikely to lead to the return of large supermarkets to our urban centers. Leaders in places such as Dallas, Chicago and Cleveland, however, have shown that they can make a difference in this issue.

Legislation introduced in the D.C. Council earlier this year, the "Supermarket Tax Incentive Act of 1999," would help the situation in Ward 8. The city could fund community food stores, while providing jobs to neighborhood residents. Vacant land could be turned over to the community for gardens, and vacant lots and buildings could be used for farmer's markets. Children could receive nutrition education so that they would understand the need to eat more potatoes and fewer potato chips.

The list of possibilities is long, as are the number of replicable programs from cities across the country. All people deserve access to good food at all times, regardless of income. The time to act is now.

-- John Friedrich

works for Community Harvest, a nonprofit organization.