James Burgess, a landscaper, woke up one day feeling too weak to push a lawn mower ahead of him. A doctor later diagnosed him with borderline diabetes – the same disease that led to the death of Burgess' mother and three uncles.
“I knew in my mind that I would die of a stroke or a heart attack if I didn’t change my diet,” Burgess said.
But with just three full-service grocery stores in the area, Ward 8 – Burgess' home – is designated as a “food desert,” making it a struggle to access fresh produce.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area where at least 500 people live more than a mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. Faced with scant options, residents often turn to fast food joints or corner stores for the majority of their diets. The inability to access healthy food also poses a range of medical issues associated with poor diets, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Ward 8 received an overall grade of "D-" on the 2006 D.C. Hunger Solution’s Community Food Security Scorecard, the lowest out of the city's eight wards.
Get FED (Food Equality in D.C.), an association dedicated to wiping out food deserts in the District established in 2010, received support from a group of GW students who began working with Ward 3 councilwoman Mary Cheh.
The group's campaigning encouraged D.C.'s Department of Small and Local Businesses, in a partnership with city nonprofits, to launch a program called Healthy Corners this year that strives to bring nutritious options to corner stores and other small retailers located in Wards 5, 7 and 8. Seven corner stores in Ward 8 participate in the program.
The Healthy Corners initiative began by inspecting corner stores in Wards 7 and 8 to identify ways to increase the amount of fresh produce. Participating retailers were given two weeks worth of fresh food along with a display stand. The program also offers nutrition education, marketing support and technical assistance in the form of free refrigerators.
About a dozen graduate students from the School of Public Health and Health Services have helped sustain the Get FED program since 2010 as part of a course on community organizing and advocacy. The students focus mainly on educating store owners and residents about developing better eating habits, and hope to attract at least one full-service grocery store to Ward 8 in the near future.
Ward 8 resident Mary Ward said the challenge of obtaining healthy options within a food desert lies in accessibility.
“When you’ve got to struggle with the bags, walk up the street and the bag busts and the stuff [is] falling all over the ground, then we’ve got a problem. It’s a pain the ass,” Ward said.
Second year master’s candidate Courtney Coffey stressed the importance of community involvement and investment in eradicating food deserts. Students visited corner stores, a local farmers market and surrounding neighborhoods as well as various health and community meetings throughout the fall semester.
“I think that we have the education piece, we have the legislation, we have the backing of D.C. government and so it’s a matter, I think, of residents [also] putting their foot down and saying, ‘This is what we need and this is what we want and what we deserve,’ ” Coffey said.
She explained that Get FED surpassed its original outreach goal of 50 people, speaking to more than 150 people and averaging 240 views a month on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Over the last year, turnout has doubled at the Ward 8 Farmers Market, held every Saturday from early June until Thanksgiving along Mississippi Avenue in Southeast D.C. Executive director of the market Michael Segal stressed the need for more guidance targeted at the neighborhood's "lost generation" – those who grew up in the area during a recent upturn in drug use.
“A lot of people lost touch with traditional food ways. They did not learn to cook from their mothers the way that previous generations did," he said. "There was a lot of reliance on convenience food, because that’s what was available."
Still, neighborhood demographics remain an obstacle in attracting large-scale grocery stores to the area.
“If from construction, all the way to employing the managers and the checkout people, having people in the community who have a sense that they have invested and that they are a part of the creation and the building of this business, then they will support it,” Coffey said.
Andrea Vittorio and Paul Blake contributed to this report.