Local Farmers’ Markets Meet Market Demand
Challenge for the month: Try finding a large grocery store in Bloomingdale that sells fresh fruits and vegetables all week long. Having trouble? You’re not alone. Bloomingdale is one of several DC neighborhoods lacking a large grocery store or supermarket.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 17,000 DC residents live in food-desert communities, more than half a mile from grocery stores that sell healthy, affordable foods. Though options are limited for carless residents, those with cars of their own can travel to grocery stores in Ward 5, including Costco, Save-a-Lot, Aldi, or the relatively close Giant store in Brentwood.
During the past few years the city has tried to entice grocers to open stores in food deserts. In 2000 the City Council passed the Supermarket Tax Exemption Act, which waived taxes and fees for 10 years to supermarkets that set up shop in specific neighborhoods (Bloomingdale grocers would qualify for the exemption). A decade later the Council passed the FEED Act, which promised corner stores and other small food retailers that the city would renovate their stores if they sold more produce and healthy foods.
Perhaps the most controversial attempt to bring grocers into the District came in September, when Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, a bill that would have required big box retailers, including grocers, to pay a $12.50 minimum wage. Wal-Mart threatened to cancel plans to build several grocery stores immediately after the Council passed the retailer bill. “If I were to sign this bill into law, it would do nothing but hinder our ability to create jobs, drive away retailers, and set us back on the path to prosperity for all,” Mayor Gray said in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
While the opening of a Wal-Mart grocery at the New York and Bladensburg Avenue intersection will provide food options for some Ward 5 residents, getting to the market may still be challenging for people in Bloomingdale.
Even as large supermarkets are missing-in-action in the area, many Bloomingdale residents are relying on one way get the fresh foods they need: local farmers’ markets. Citywide the number of farmers’ markets has jumped 60 percent since 2009. Nearly 700 food shoppers show up every Sunday for the Bloomingdale Farmers’ Market on First and R streets to buy bread, fruits vegetables, meat, artisan cheese, and homemade desserts. Market director Robin Shuster said that 94 percent of all customers walk or bike to the market. The market “is a community space that is welcoming to everyone in the neighborhood, like an old-fashioned plaza where everyone can shop and meet and talk,” said Shuster.
Other residents buy their fresh foods on Wednesdays from Arcadia Mobile Market, the 28-foot green-painted school bus located on 3rd and Elm streets. The local farmers-market-on-wheels – which aims to make nutritious food more accessible – operates weekly markets at senior living facilities and community centers. Both markets accept federal food assistance vouchers such as SNAP and WIC, and as a bonus all federal food access program dollars are doubled by a matching program run by the city and various nonprofits.
“It’s nice to be able to walk around to pick up food,” said mobile market buyer Monta Newby, who has lived in the area for 38 years. Arcadia’s culinary educator, Juliet Harris, said that Bloomingdale is unique in being the only community market with upper-middle-class buyers. Most Arcadia mobile markets sell in food deserts in low-income areas and draw a mixed-income crowd.
“I call that neighborhood a crossroads area, remarked Harris, “because on one side, near the Kelly Miller apartments, you have people in low-income housing, while there are newer, wealthier residents on the other side.” She added that many local Howard University students depend on the market for fresh food. She spends much of her time educating buyers about how to cook vegetables and herbs.
According to Stacy Miller, project director for the Farmers Market Coalition, local markets like the Bloomingdale market and the Mobile Market are thriving in urban areas because that’s where demand for local food is the highest. On the supply side, small and mid-size farmers who traditionally cannot compete in the supermarket industry are flocking to urban markets because there are lower barriers to entry. “Farmers’ markets provide communities with the widest variety of fresh, locally grown produce while supporting rural livelihoods, incubating entrepreneurial innovation, and strengthening the civic fabric of America's neighborhoods,” commented Miller.
Urban governments can do more to develop local markets, said Miller. “Cities can support farmers’ markets through fiscal sponsorship, as well as supportive zoning and permitting policies that allow for markets to operate affordably on public space and for farmers to sell their products without navigating byzantine regulations.”