BAD PUBLICITY about the state of Safeway stores in the District east of the river prompted a recent cleaning blitz by the company. Workers scrubbed shelves and refrigerator cases, removing moldy produce and spoiled meat. Good that D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D) focused attention on conditions at the stores serving his Ward 7 constituents, and good that Safeway took needed action. But it will take more than sudsy water and promises of better service to address the lack of grocery options for Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents. The failure of successive administrations on this issue underscores the need for new strategies.
Mr. Gray made unannounced visits to the Safeway stores in Ward 7 that not only called attention to his demand for improved services but also highlighted the long-standing grocery gap that exists in the District. Wards 7 and 8 have just three supermarkets between them, far behind the citywide average of more than six supermarkets per ward. While much of the city has swelled in numbers and affluence of stores, Wards 7 and 8 actually saw a decrease in offerings. A report by D.C. Hunger Solutions contrasted how the 149,750 residents of Wards 7 and 8 were served by three supermarkets while the 82,000 residents of Ward 6 had 10 full-service grocery stores.
More than convenience is involved. Lack of access to fresh produce and other foods can lead to poor nutrition and bad health outcomes, and those affected are some of the city’s most vulnerable people. “It’s a health issue,” said Beverly Wheeler of D.C. Hunger Solutions. “We can no longer pretend we don’t see what we see.”
Attempts by the city over successive administrations to attract and retain grocery stores have failed. An organic market that opened in Ward 8 closed after two years, and the much-heralded effort to attract two Walmart stores fizzled when the company pulled out of the deal. Retailers and developers look at the bottom line, and Wards 7 and 8 have neither the median income nor high-density daytime populations that are attractive to doing business. There are also higher costs for security and staff turnover for stores that operate in poorer areas.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has set aside $3 million to try to help attract developers to underserved areas, and Mr. Gray has proposed legislation that would require the District to pay for the construction of supermarkets for chains that agree to locate in underserved areas. While that might not be the right formula, officials are right to recognize the need for the city to play a more active role in this critical area.