From where she lives in upper Northwest Washington, Angela Bradbery is two miles from a Safeway, nearly a mile from a Whole Foods and half that distance from a Giant where, on every other Friday, patrons can listen to a live jazz combo while shopping.
Even with those options, Bradbery was pleased to learn recently that Wegmans — a veritable Taj Mahal for foodies — is planning its first Washington store around the corner on Wisconsin Avenue. “People are excited,” she said, though she added that she knew of no one who had been “clamoring” for another place to buy eggs. “It’s not like people petitioned for this.”
In a far less prosperous neighborhood across town, east of the Anacostia River, three Safeway cashiers served some two dozen patrons on a Friday afternoon, a number of them visibly angry about how long it was taking to pay.
“Open up some lines, Mr. Manager!” a man shouted as he waited to buy a beer.
A few feet away, Cuteava Chambers groused about a dearth of alternatives. The nearest supermarket — another Safeway — was two miles away, and across a bridge.
“This is crazy,” said Chambers, 55, who doesn’t own a car. “Where else can we go?”
Over the past decade, as the District’s population has swelled in size and affluence, the range and quality of grocery stores has proliferated in wealthy neighborhoods. A new Whole Foods on H Street NE, among six supermarkets that have opened in rapidly gentrifying Ward 6 since 2010, includes a bartender serving 16 craft beers, which patrons can sip while they shop.
But in the District’s poorest neighborhoods, the number of supermarkets has decreased, exacerbating a long-standing “grocery gap” that has grown more acute as the city has become more well-to-do.
The 160,000 residents of Wards 7 and 8, on the District’s eastern edge, have a total of three full-service groceries, down from seven in 2010 after several Murry’s Steaks outlets shut down and a Yes Organic Market failed.
That’s more than 50,000 people for every grocery store.
In contrast, Ward 6, with new apartment towers along H Street NE and near Nationals Park, has 10 supermarkets. Residents of Ward 3 in upper Northwest, where the new Wegmans is planned, can choose from eight.
That’s about 10,000 residents for every grocery store.
The imbalance was the subject of a recent study that found that nearly 70 percent of the city’s supermarkets in 2016 were concentrated in its wealthiest, predominantly white neighborhoods. The remainder were in poorer areas that are overwhelmingly African American.
“This disparity reflects both the growing economic and racial inequality in the city and the shortfalls in the District’s efforts to solve the problem,” said the report by D.C. Hunger Solutions. “This disparity also exacerbates food insecurity and poor health outcomes for the District’s most vulnerable residents.”
After taking office in 2015, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) created a new cabinet post to focus on spurring development in the city’s poorest areas. Since then, Walmart has broken an agreement to place two stores in Ward 7.
Brian Kenner, the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said the Bowser administration shares “the frustration with Ward 7 and 8 residents about the availability of greater food options.” In addition to promoting sites in those wards to supermarket chains, Bowser has set aside $3 million to attract developers to underserved areas.
“We are working on this challenge every single day,” Kenner said.
Bob Gorland, of the New Jersey-based grocery-store consulting firm Matthew P. Casey and Associates, said that chains consider density when choosing locations and that the largely bedroom communities in Wards 7 and 8 often lack the daytime population needed to support large-scale supermarkets.
The greatest obstacle, he said, is that grocers in poorer areas need to make 30 percent more than a store in an affluent neighborhood to offset costs associated with shoplifting, security, cleanliness and staff turnover.
“Traditionally, it’s a tougher area to make a profit,” Gorland said.
Even affluent Washingtonians often complain about their local grocery. The Safeway on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest’s Chevy Chase neighborhood is derided as antiquated, while the Giant on Van Ness Street sometimes draws barbs for bare shelves and poor service.
Yet residents in those areas are in proximity to alternatives such as the Whole Foods in Tenleytown or the Safeway in Georgetown, with its vast parking, outdoor patio and lounge furnished with comfortable armchairs, a fireplace, complimentary WiFi and flat-screen televisions.
The area’s options are plentiful enough that the Wegmans announcement prompted a smattering of concern in a Cleveland Park email group about potential traffic congestion caused by the supermarket.
Resident of Ward 7 wish they had such problems.
Their only immediate option is the Safeway just off the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, which was why Raymond Blanks, a retired educator who lives nearby, rode a bus more than three miles on a recent Friday to buy rockfish, sweet potatoes and organic carrots at the Whole Foods on H Street NE.
“It was beautiful,” he said as he waited for another bus to deliver him home, his green Whole Foods bag on his arm.
At his neighborhood Safeway, Blanks said, he once asked a worker for bok choy: “He looked at me like I was a brother from another planet. They don’t carry it.”
“They never have enough cashiers,” Blanks continued. “And they have lines that go all the way to Anacostia.”
On another afternoon, Theresa Stephens, 67, a retired clerical worker who lives in Anacostia, could not find sliced pimentos and mushrooms after driving 1½ miles to her nearest Safeway, this one on Alabama Avenue SE. So she drove another 1½ miles to Giant, Ward 8’s only supermarket, where she found what she wanted.
“We’ve got nothing over here,” she said of her options. “They’re overlooking us.”
Later that afternoon, Ruth Bey, 35, a project specialist for the National Institutes of Health, stood at a bus stop with bags she had just carried from the Safeway on Alabama Avenue. She shops there three times a week for herself, her husband and her two boys, despite her concerns about the store’s cleanliness.
She might not notice the deficiencies, she said, if she did not also shop at the Safeway near her office in Bethesda, where she said she finds lower prices on chicken and fish, the shelves “more organized” and the staff communicating “more with you than at you.” She said she also doesn’t have to wait 15 to 20 minutes to pay, as often is the case when she shops near home.
In her neighborhood, Bey said, “they don’t say ‘Welcome to Safeway’ like they do in Bethesda. If I never went anywhere else but my own neighborhood, I’d think this is the way it’s supposed to be. But I know it’s not because I’ve seen what it’s supposed to be like in another neighborhood.”
Inside the Safeway on Alabama Avenue, Joy Hicks, 36, was leaning over a full cart as she waited to pay. The long wait is a ritual that infuriates her — she interprets it as evidence of the store’s disrespect for a clientele that is almost entirely African American.
“We can see the systemic bullcrap,” said Hicks, who works as a security guard. “They’ll take our food stamps, our cash, our credit, but they won’t provide us with adequate staff.”
Beth Goldberg, a Safeway spokeswoman, said in an email that the supermarket has an “unwavering commitment” to Ward 7 and that it is using “new scheduling technology” to improve staffing at peak hours. “We want to provide our customers with the best possible shopping experience,” she wrote.
Goldberg said Safeway has no plans to open additional groceries in Washington but will be renovating stores in Wards 2, 3 and 5, where patrons “can look forward to a refreshed shopping experience.”
A Giant spokesman declined “for competitive reasons” to specify new sites that may be under consideration.
Jair Lynch, a developer who has built major projects in Washington, recently bought a shopping center in Ward 7, at Pennsylvania and Branch avenues SE near the Maryland border.
It is an ideal location for a supermarket, Lynch said. But persuading a retailer to open at that intersection is a challenge, he said.
Among his first decisions was to change the name of the strip from the Penn Branch shopping center to the Shops at Penn Hill, a rebranding he hopes adds a touch of elegance that will convince a supermarket it can prosper at the site.
At first, he said, the response he heard from retailers was that the 9,000 residents within a half-mile of the site were not enough to support a store.
But he added more numbers to his pitch: An additional 40,000 commute through the intersection. “Through that lens, it’s a much different conversation,” he said. “It is a long game to get a grocer. We are in the second or third inning of that game today, but I’m actively working.”
Over the years, the District has offered tax abatements to attract supermarkets.
Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) recently proposed legislation that would require the District to fund construction of supermarkets for chains if they agreed to locate in underserved areas.
While he understands that many of his constituents view race as a principal reason for their lack of retail options, Gray focuses on economics. “We know that race and economics are inextricably tied,” he said while standing outside the Safeway off Benning Road. “How do we raise income levels so retailers think they can make money?”
His constituents are focused on more-immediate questions.
Inside the store, Esther Simmons, a retired nursing technician, was in line wondering how long it would take her to reach the cashier. Normally she shops in Maryland, she said, because the service is better.
“Thank God I’m in no hurry,” she said. “Otherwise I’d put everything back on the shelves and leave.”