The D.C. Council’s vote to approve a bill requiring some large retailers to pay their employees a minimum wage of $12.50/hour undoubtedly hit one area of the District the hardest: Ward 7.
There were two Wal-Mart stores set to be built in the ward, but hopes were dashed on multiple fronts Wednesday. The retailer said it would halt its D.C. plans if the council passed the super minimum wage.
If the big-box retailer does pull out of its remaining developments in the city, communities east of the Anacostia River will have likely lost a good chance to increase their supermarket options. The two stores would have provided additional grocery options to an area known for forcing residents to travel out of the District to buy healthy food. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said as much during a Wednesday legislative meeting.
“Not only do we have health disparities in Wards 7 and 8, we have food deserts,” he said. Referring to the few sit-down eating establishments in his ward, he added: “We only have three restaurants in Ward 8, for 73,000 people.”
Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander (D) agrees that if Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) doesn’t veto the bill, it’s a loss for food access in her community. “That is a real factor,” she said, referring to lack of access to grocery stores. “When we’re talking about options in a lot of sections of Ward 7, there are no options. A lot of residents are forced to go to neighboring Prince George’s County, or to go to the fast-food establishments or the corner store. Junk food.”
Alexander, who voted against the living-wage bill, citing it as anti-development, also noted that the grocers that are available often times take advantage of the lack of competition by supplying a lower-quality product. “In addition to that, we do have some grocers that don’t step up to do all they need to do, because they know that there aren’t options there. We’re a no-win, catch-22, either there’s no place to go or there’s no options available, so we tend to get the substandard service.”
Indeed, Wal-Mart’s ability to substantively help alleviate food deserts is low income areas is a complicated issue. And while easier access to healthy food does not necessarily mean better food choices by residents, a continued lack of options most certainly does not allow for much improvement in a community’s public health. Food isn’t the only issue at hand in the local debate over the chain, but it’s important. And food access is a commitment that at the very least, Wal-Mart has shown some interest in.
As The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports:
Well before it had any solid plans to open stores in the District, Wal-Mart joined the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and began making inroads with politicians, community groups and local charities that work on anti-hunger initiatives. The campaign was matched with cash. Through its charitable foundation, Wal-Mart made $3.8 million in donations last year to city organizations including D.C. Central Kitchen and the Capitol Area Food Bank, according to a company spokesman.
Is it worth it to risk an already mostly-jobless and healthy-opportunity-deprived community’s chance at both for the sake of something “more exciting” as Council member Vincent Orange, (D-At-Large), put it? According to him, yes.
“We still have those [food] options in the city. … When I started in Ward 5, we had a desert. We don’t have a desert now, you have to put in the hard work,” Orange said at the Wilson Building on Wednesday when asked about the food desert issue. “You have to do the planning and you have to make it happen.”
An analysis of the grocery gap in D.C., by a group called D.C. Hunger Solutions in 2010, shows residents of Wards 4, 5 and 7 must travel longer distances on average than residents in other wards to get to full-service grocers. And if people don’t have any jobs at all, that makes things even more difficult.
According to the report, “Low-income people, whose budgets already are stretched to meet basic needs, often do not have extra money to pay for additional transportation costs and are most affected by long distances to grocery stores. Low-income District residents also typically have few transportation options.” Their solution involves a city-sponsored food initiative, which in the case of Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, established in 2004, used public funds, later leveraged by private funds attract grocers and vendors.
Certainly, establishing more programs like the Ward 8 Farmers Market would be ideal. And yes, there’s a long-term risk to allowing a company like Wal-Mart to chronically underpay the employees it may hire. “On the surface it was really hard [to vote for Wal-Mart]. Because it looks like you are against residents earning a fair wage,” Alexander said. “But then after you start peeling off the layers, then people understand ‘hey, we need jobs, we need retail. And not to say that people should play hardball and say all or nothing. But to be fair, no, we were playing the game and then we changed the rules in the middle of the game. We didn’t do this when Costco came to Ward 5. We didn’t do this when Target came to Ward 1.”
To be clear, the Wal-Mart as a food oasis experiment has happened before. Writing for Mother Jones, Tom Philcott pointed out the pitfalls of such an experiment in a 2012 story ‘Is Walmart the Answer to ‘Food Deserts”?
For the piece, Philcott cited a 2009 study by Loyola University that found that when Wal-Mart opened a store on Chicago’s West Side in 2006, “25 percent of nearby businesses that compete with Walmart’s offerings — including food retailers — closed within a year of the store’s opening. By year two, the failure rate reached 40 percent.
Clearly there are risks to the possible long-term effects of a multibillion-dollar corporation moving in and underpaying its workers. But let’s at least consider what Ward 7 has been dealing with — a blighted Skyland Mall and a continued dearth of nutrition options — before denying them the closest thing they’ve had to hope in development in decades.