Feeding Many, Pleasing Few
When Jessica Wynter Martin transplanted herself from California to the Deanwood neighborhood in Ward 7, her first stop seemed logical. She went to the local grocery to get food for her empty apartment. But a trip to the Safeway at 322 40th St. NE gave her a taste of the reality her Ward 7 neighbors have faced for several years.
“I cooked the food that I got from the Safeway and I got sick,” said Martin, founder and CEO of nonprofit consulting firm JWM Concepts LLC. “And the next day it all went bad. My box of strawberries, every strawberry, went to mold in two days.”
“It’s just deplorable conditions,” she added.
With only two major affordable grocery stores left in the ward, long lines and poor service plague residents trying to provide basic food needs for their families.
Martin focuses her work on food justice, food access, and urban agriculture. She and neighbors in the Ward 7 community want better, healthier food options for their families, but the fight seems to go on without any real change. (Ward 8 also faces the same grocery problems.)
The two main grocery stores in Ward 7 are Safeways, one on 40th Street and another at 2845 Alabama Ave. SE. Ward 8 has one Giant grocery store at 1535 Alabama Ave. SE.
In comparison, Ward 6 has at least six big grocery stores and several other organic and other markets, even though the three wards have about the same number of residents. According to data from the US Census of 2016, Ward 7 came in with more than 70,000, Ward 8 more than 70,000, and Ward 6 more than 75,000.
Driving Miles Just for Food
Ward 7 resident Michele Tingling-Clemons recalled sending her son to the store one day to pick up a few items for an event. Once he got there, he called and asked if she really needed the items because the line to the few open checkout lanes reached all the way to the back of the store.
“It’s understaffed, there’s not enough people working there,” Tingling-Clemons said. “I know the difference between a well-stocked, responsive store and what’s not.” Residents have shared stories of waiting an hour and a half in line at the store.
Tingling-Clemons serves as the president of the Central Northeast Civic Association. She experiences the problems firsthand and often finds herself going across the river to Ward 6’s Safeway at 415 14th St. SE. She gets tired of waiting at the stores in her ward, and the one on Capitol Hill is better, she said. She’s trying to keep her consumer dollars in the District.
Other residents go to the Harris Teeter store near Potomac Avenue SE, the Giant on Third and H streets NE, or stores in Maryland and Virginia, she said. “The real challenge is that poor people have learned to fend in a society and economy that is not supportive,” she said, speaking of the residents who have to carry bags of groceries on the buses each week.
Constituents in the Eastland Gardens and surrounding areas also complain of the poor quality, said Eastland Gardens Civic Association President Rochelle Frazier Gray. Like those in Tingling-Clemons’ area, many of Gray’s neighbors choose to drive out of the city to shop, if they’re lucky enough to have a car. “I go to Harris Teeter in NoMa, Costco, Walmart in Capital Plaza,” Gray said. “It really shouldn’t take me three stops just to buy the needed items.”
Highest Grossing Doesn’t Mean Quality
Safeway touts the Ward 7 store on 40th as one of its highest grossing stores, Tingling-Clemons said. Many people who don’t have cars or can’t take several buses just to buy groceries have limited or no other options.
“If we are the highest, why should we have to suffer?” she asked. “We feel it’s intentional on the part of the corporate structure of Safeway. They know they’re the only game in town so they feel it’s OK to disrespect us over and over again.”
A spokesperson for Safeway, Beth Goldberg, said the company values that Ward 7 store because it plays an important role in the community. “We welcome feedback from our Ward 7 customers and appreciate their input,” Goldberg said. “Our customers help us improve by telling us what they enjoy, and enhancements they want to see, in their shopping experience.”
Safeway has no plans to close either of its Ward 7 stores, she added.
Tingling-Clemons doesn’t believe Safeway offers supportive services, though. “The problems you want to report, there’s no manager available,” she declared. “They’re essentially telling you, We really don’t care.”
Martin argues that the service they do provide doesn’t even come close to healthy. “You’re paying farmers’ market prices for the food at the Safeway that’s essentially waste,” she said. As for the number of employees working at the store and on the register, she doesn’t understand why management doesn’t hire more if the store has such a high gross and obvious demand. She would not encounter this problem in California or in other wards, she said.
Feeling Pushed Out
Residents in the ward sometimes take to neighborhood Listservs to lament over the problems with the Safeway stores. But it also turns to a larger issue in the changing and growing District – signs of gentrification.
Martin recalled some online conversations about the influx of higher-market housing and higher-income residents to the historically black communities in Wards 7 and 8. She said many worry this will bring in more retail befitting that market instead of the established residents. For example, a Starbucks may come in instead of a local coffee shop. Or a pricier grocer like Whole Foods instead of a more affordable Giant.
“White voices end up being heard more than black voices,” Martin said. “We have people who have been calling, and they’re being ignored.”
Gray added that the lack of attention paid to the residents’ complaints and needs feels wrong. “It makes us feel like second-class citizens,” she said.
Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent C. Gray declined to comment.
Even if developers bring in a changing demographic, that doesn’t mean the current residents will move out, said Tingling-Clemons. In fact, she and others have started plans to host a “Food Justice and Our Right to Food” conference in late 2017 or early 2018. “The reality is we aren’t going anywhere, we aren’t leaving,” Tingling-Clemons said. “And we intend to survive and not just survive, but thrive.”