Crossing Ward 4’s Food Desert

A Revealing Journey

My car died last year.  For a few weeks in November, I had to rely on public transportation to get to work and run errands.  My cherished 30-minute daily commute ballooned to 2.5 hours.  I lost count of the number of times a scheduled S4 or S9 bus failed to show up at my stop on those cold, dark days. And carrying grocery bags from the Blair Plaza Giant food store for over a mile is no walk in the park.

Through my brief journey, I learned how difficult it can be to travel in this community. Now, imagine this was your everyday reality…a reality shared by the 23% of Ward 4 households who do not own a car.  That represents more than 18,000 of our neighbors and friends.  You may be surprised to learn that much of Ward 4 is categorized as a food desert by the DC Office of Planning. In fact, Ward 4 falls behind all but Wards 7 & 8 in the number of full service grocery stores.  The city is working hard to incentivize grocers to locate in neighborhoods that currently lack them, but can you believe that Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A is currently debating a resolution to block the development of a grocery store on Georgia Avenue NW?

Major Health Impact

Living in a “Food Desert” is more than an annoyance, it is an issue that has serious health impacts on children, families and seniors.  Looking at the map above, you can see that large portions of the Ward 4 community have limited access to healthy, affordable foods, especially fruits and vegetables. If you live more than a ten-minute walk from a store, it makes eating a healthy diet a big challenge. It also fosters many diet-related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. When fresh food is hard to come by and greasy-spoon carry-outs and corner stores are abundant, it easy to see how families make less than ideal choices.  This impact falls hardest on participants receiving assistance the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.  These families end up traveling further and spending more of their limited time and budget on transportation costs.

The organization DC Hunger Solutions recently published a study on food security in the District.  It found that 34 of the city’s 49 supermarkets were in the predominantly white wards that have the highest household incomes, while the remaining 15 stores were spread among wards 4, 5, 7 and 8, areas with majority African-American populations.  Our friends in Ward 3 seemingly cannot go a block without hitting a supermarket, and this doesn’t even include the newly announced Wegmans slated for Wisconsin Avenue NW.

food store distribution
Data and image courtesy of DC Hunger Solutions

A Bad Resolution

Advisory Neighborhood Commission Resolution #4A-17-0602 is deceptively complicated.  Couched in reasonably-sounding phrasing about public safety, its true purpose is clear: to stop the development of this planned grocery store complex in Ward 4.  To be clear, there is no public safety risk. Here is the summary quote from the May 2016 traffic study published by engineering firm Gorove/Slade:

This report reviews the transportation aspects of the Shepherd Park Planned Unit Development (PUD) application. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the project’s impacts to the surrounding transportation network.

This evaluation is based on a technical comparison of the existing conditions, background conditions, and future conditions. This report concludes that the project will not have a detrimental impact to the surrounding transportation network assuming that all planned site design elements and mitigations are implemented.


Of course, every development project in this region sprouts a troop of amateur traffic engineers like mushrooms after a spring rain.  They oppose the addition of even a single vehicle trip, and their opinion is fair and welcome.  However, as this city and region continue to grow, it is the job of ANC commission to process the expert testimony and exhibits and reflect the needs of entire community, not just the noisiest few. #FAKENEWS is a rolling punchline for most readers, but Democrats and other Progressives are just as willing to abandon science and engineering when the mood strikes.

ANC 4A02 Commissioner Stacey Lincoln is laser-focused on the desires of a handful of residents who oppose the development, but seems incapable of balancing their wishes with the needs of the other 2,000 residents in his Single Member District, the 16,000 within ANC 4A and the 80,000 throughout Ward 4. He is happy to report that he surveyed a few dozen of the neighbors most likely to be annoyed by a big construction project, but what about the rest of the neighborhood?  How many of the apartment dwellers on and across Georgia Avenue were interviewed?  In a late Saturday night listserv post, he even suggested that residents should lobby DC Council members to try to block this development (the true purpose of the resolution) ….in a city with a well-documented food security gap.  The reader can judge his motivation for herself.  However, the residents who need this source of healthy food the most, the ones who don’t have an ANC commissioner’s phone number on speed dial, also need representation.

Your Voice

No matter where you stand on this or other civic issues, your input is needed at Tuesday’s ANC 4A meeting.  As I’ve learned throughout the process of covering community events for this blog, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions wield a lot more influence than the average citizen realizes.  I am a simple man with a simple blog.  I can editorialize and ask the Commission to reject this resolution on factual grounds and on moral grounds.  But without the guiding wind of the citizens’ voice, ANC Commissions can and do sail off course.

Christopher Alexander
Shepherd Park


food desert map

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