A vast majority of the District’s supermarkets are in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, while options for fresh produce and other groceries are fewer in poorer areas, a newly released report has found.
In 2016, nearly 70 percent — or 34 — of the city’s 49 supermarkets were in four wards that are predominantly white and have the District’s highest household incomes, according to the review by D.C. Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The remainder of the supermarkets were in the four wards that are majority black and have the lowest incomes, according to the group. The terrain includes Wards 7 and 8, which encompass the city’s poorest neighborhoods, east of the Anacostia River.
With three supermarkets between them, Wards 7 and 8 lag far behind the citywide average of just more than six supermarkets per ward, the study found. In contrast, Ward 3, which includes Cleveland Park, Tenleytown and Chevy Chase, had nine supermarkets. Wegmans recently announced it would open its first store in the District on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Ward 3.
The area with the city’s greatest concentration of supermarkets is Ward 6 — which includes the gentrifying H Street corridor, NoMa and the neighborhood around Nationals Park — with 10 supermarkets. That number has more than doubled since 2010.
“Grocery-store access is a racial equity issue that must be dealt with, and it’s a health issue,” said Beverley Wheeler, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. “We can no longer pretend we don’t see what we see.”
The paucity of supermarkets in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, she said, is especially onerous for residents collecting food subsidies, many of whom may not have access to a car and must rely on public transportation to shop for groceries.
Between Wards 7 an 8, more than 60,000 residents receive subsidies under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Can you imagine if you have to take two or three buses and take your kids with you?” Wheeler asked. “You can’t carry all that back with you.”
Because of differences in methodology, the new survey does not exactly match statistics kept by the District government that show a total of 45 supermarkets. However, the percentage breakdowns by ward are largely similar.
The District’s grocery divide has long been an issue that has frustrated officials and residents. When D.C. Hunger last surveyed the District in 2010, 29 of 43 supermarkets were in the city’s most affluent areas.
District officials say that as the city has become more affluent, it has more grocery options than it did a generation ago. Since 2000, 29 supermarkets have opened or have been renovated in the District, said Andrew Trueblood, chief of staff to Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for economic development.
“We have made a ton of progress,” Trueblood said, though he acknowledged that it is “uneven” for various parts of the city.
Over the years, District officials have offered a variety of tax subsidies to lure supermarkets. In recent weeks, D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) has proposed legislation that would sweeten the incentives, requiring the District government to pay for the construction of supermarkets if companies agreed to locate in certain areas of Ward 7 and 8.
But the inducements will not work unless the businesses believe they can generate revenue.
Warren Williams, a developer who chairs Gray’s Ward 7 economic advisory council, said Wards 7 and 8 struggle to attract supermarkets, as well as retail and restaurants, because the areas lack sufficient population density.
Neither ward has large concentrations of office buildings that draw daytime traffic, and many residents commute to other parts of the city to work. “The decisions are driven by the numbers,” he said. “Groceries will go where they think they can make a profit.”
Ward 5, which includes neighborhoods such as Fort Lincoln and Brookland, was the one majority-African-American area in the District where the number of grocery stores increased, from three to seven between 2010 and 2016. The new options include an Aldi and a Costco.
Yet Wheeler said the ward did not experience any significant increase in income or education levels. “We’re not talking about high-end Harris Teeters. We’re talking about reasonable groceries,” she said. “Can we get those stores east of the river?”
In May, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a contingent of D.C. Council members attended the annual International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, where they pitched supermarket companies on the prospect of opening in new developments in Wards 7 and 8.
Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), whose district includes Anacostia and Congress Heights, said his ward’s lone supermarket, a Giant, is overrun with shoppers.
“The food runs out fast. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’re at the point where we can’t just talk about the problem. We have to create a solution.”
White procured $300,000 in next year’s budget to help small businesses in the ward establish alternative sources of food, such as organic gardens. At the conference in Las Vegas, he said, he had productive discussions with representatives of Lidl, a grocery chain, about opening a market in the ward.
William Harwood, a company spokesman, said in an email that Lidl has “begun looking at sites in the District” but that it is “too early for me to comment further at this stage.”