By: Andrew Cotton

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) estimates that around ten percent of families in the U.S. are food insecure.[1]  According to the USDA, a household is considered “food insecure” when household members do not have consistent access to enough food to sustain an “active, healthy life.”[2]  The COVID-19 pandemic upended food security for many families; Washington, D.C. food banks estimated that up to 250,000 residents experienced food insecurity in 2020.[3]  Washington, D.C. defines food deserts as “areas that are located more than half a mile from a grocery store or supermarket, have low rates of car access, and have a high poverty rate.”[4] Over eighty percent of Washington, D.C.’s food deserts can be found in Wards 7 and 8.[5]  These Wards are located in the Southeast part of Washington, D.C. across the Anacostia River, and are predominately low-income and majority-Black populations. [6]

The Executive Office of the Mayor for Washington, D.C. addressed this problem by identifying food deserts in the District and providing tax incentives and grants to businesses that open grocery stores in these areas.[7] MayorMuriel Bowser expanded the program with additional funding through the “Local Food Access Grants Emergency Amendment Act of 2021.”[8]

Funding for this Act came from the half a billion-dollar surplus in the Washington, D.C. government budget.[9]  Washington, D.C. City Council sent Mayor Bowser a letter calling for a portion of this surplus to be used to address the food deserts in Wards 7 and 8.[10]  An additional 58 million dollars in grants were announced during the 2021 DMV Black Restaurant Week with the goal of bringing food businesses to these Wards.[11]  In addition to this funding, the Washington, D.C. government altered the Supermarket Tax Credit to allow for more eligibility for supermarkets in Wards 7 and 8.[12]  The press release accompanying these announcements estimates that 162,000 residents are expected to gain access to a food point within a mile of their home as a result of these initiatives.[13]

While a step forward, access to food points within a mile of the home does not guarantee large-scale access to full-service grocery stores.  Currently, Wards 7 and 8 only have three full-service stores combined for their population of over 160,000.[14]  In contrast, Ward 6, which is directly across the Anacostia, has 14 full-service supermarkets.[15]  Since the implementation of the “Local Food Access Grants Emergency Amendment Act of 2021,” plans for two full-service grocery store openings were announced by the Mayor’s Office.[16]  The plans include a Lidl that will open in Ward 7, as well as another new grocery store in Ward 7 at the Capitol Gateway Marketplace, which is a development project that has gone without an anchor grocery store for several years.[17]

Eminent domain was necessary to secure the location for the Capitol Gateway Marketplace; Washington, D.C. invested $200 million into this new town center that was supposed to be anchored by Walmart.[18]  In 2016, Walmart abruptly withdrew from the development project for the location.[19]  As justification for this decision, Walmart relied upon a clause in their “Washington, DC Community Partnership Initiative” that stated any commitments made by Walmart would be “subject and contingent upon business conditions.”[20]  Walmart was ultimately able to keep their other three stores that they opened in gentrified areas of Washington, D.C operational.[21]  This shows that the Washington, D.C. government has been working to solve the food desert problem for some time but has faced logistical challenges in implementing this vision.

Food deserts in Washington, D.C. will not be disappearing any time soon.  The topic is likely to arise in the upcoming Mayoral and City Council races in 2022, especially when considering Washington, D.C.’s recent budget surplus and concerns about inflation.[22]  While funding for full-service grocery stores and tax incentives should help, expanding eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs should be implemented to incentivize full-service grocery stores to open in these Wards.[23] Additionally, the Washington, D.C. government will need to create better agreements with prospective retail stores in order to avoid what happened with Walmart in Ward 7.  Incentives for these companies are necessary because, without them, companies are unlikely to consider it a wise business decision to invest in these areas.[24]  Opening new grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 will not fix all of the socio-economic divisions between the different Wards, but addressing food deserts is a good step towards addressing food security and public health.

[1] See Aisha Coleman-Jensen et al., Household Food Security in the United States in 2020, USDA ERS Rep. 298 4 (Sept. 2021) (providing an overview and definition of food insecurity).

[2] Id.

[3] See Rebecca Tan, The Pandemic Intensified Hunger in the D.C. Region. Now, There’s a Push to End it for Good., The Washington Post (Oct. 19, 2021) (explaining the challenges that many families have faced in Washington, D.C. trying to find food during the pandemic).

[4] Food Access in DC A Focus on Retail Grocery Access, D.C. Policy Center, (last visited Mar. 9, 2022)

[5] See id. (highlighting the areas in Washington, D.C. that are categorized as a food desert).

[6] See Dee Dwyer & Martin Austermuhle, Voices of Wards 7 and 8: D.C.’s Race for Mayor, WAMU 88.5 (Feb. 15, 2022) (interviewing persons that live in Wards 7 and 8 and describing, inter alia, the challenges that some faced in finding reliable meals).

[7] See Mayor Bowser Launches the Next Round of the Food Access Fund, Executive Office of the Mayor (Dec. 6, 2021), (describing the steps the Washington, D.C. city government has taken to solve food insecurity in the region).

[8] 2021 D.C. Legis. Res. No. 282, D.C. Council Period Twenty-Four.

[9] Matt Gregory, Verify: Yes, Despite the Pandemic, DC Ran a Surplus in 2020, WUSA9 (Feb. 19, 2021) (providing the reasons why Washington, D.C. experienced a budget surplus in 2021).

[10] Alexander Spearman, Mayor Bowser Urged to Use DC Budget Surplus to Eliminate Food Desert, ABC 7 News (May 19, 2021) (identifying views from several individuals that believed the surplus funds should be used to tackle food deserts).

[11] Mayor Bowser Announces Nearly $9 Million in Food Access Funds, Government of the District of Columbia Muriel Bowser, Mayor, Nov. 8, 2021 (showing the steps that the Office of the Mayor is taking to try and combat these food deserts).

[12] See id. (describing the Supermarket Tax Credit which was designed by the Washington, D.C. government to incentivize the development of more full-service grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8).

[13] See id. (describing another step the government took to incentivize grocery stores to open in these locations).

[14] See Dwyer & Austermuhle, supra note 6 (identifying a major mismatch in population and access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food).

[15] See id. (providing a comparison of the inequities of a neighboring Ward with access to many more grocery stores).

[16] See Mayor Bowser Clears Path to Bring a New Grocery Store to Ward 7, Government of the District of Columbia Muriel Bowser, Mayor, (Jan. 27, 2022) (listing a Lidl that will soon be opening in Ward 8 and plans to open a new full-service grocery store in Ward 7).

[17] See id. (describing the challenges faced by the Washington, D.C. government in finding an anchor store for this location).

[18] Michael Hiltzik, How Wal[-M]art ‘Absolutely Shafted’ Washington, D.C., by Reneging on a Promise, Los Angeles Times (Jan. 22, 2016) (giving the negative reaction of several prominent Washington, D.C. politicians on Walmart’s decision to back out).

[19] See Mayor Bowser Clears Path to Bring a New Grocery Store to Ward 7, supra note 16 (describing the plan that the Office of the Mayor is taking to open the new grocery store in Ward 7 and identifying why this particular location did not already have a grocery store).

[20] Washington, DC Community Partnership Initiative, Walmart (last visited Mar. 23, 2022)

[21] See Hiltzik, supra note 18 (explaining Walmart’s strategy to scale back on stores and how it left the Washington, D.C. community without a good answer for the Ward 7 grocery store development project).

[22] See generally Dwyer & Austermuhle, supra note 6 (providing voices and describing candidate views from Wards 7 and 8 as related to the upcoming Mayoral and City Council elections).

[23] See D.C. Policy Center, supra note 4 (identifying that only half of Washington, D.C. full-service grocery stores accept WIC and that Washington, D.C. has higher standards than the federal government for eligibility to accept WIC).

[24] See, e.g., Hiltzik, supra note 18 (describing some of the business challenges Walmart identified in opening grocery stores in Washington, D.C.).

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