By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO, [email protected]

The wasteland of fresh food shopping options has pushed some residents east of the Anacostia River to take measures into their hands. Those who live in D.C.’s Ward 7 and Ward 8 communities have been complaining for years about the access to adequate grocery stores, so many are now empowering themselves to end the food desert dilemma.

Food deserts are described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as  “an area where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food.” 

  As recently as 2016, there were only 49 supermarkets in D.C. and the average number per ward was six. Currently, Ward 7 and Ward 8  have just three combined full-service grocery stores serving 148,000 residents.

Residents in Wards 7 and 8 are finding solutions to end the food desert problem in their area. (Courtesy Photo)

According to a report posted by the Greater Greater Washington website D.C.’s food deserts have led to many “social entrepreneurs” who are increasing food access despite limited resources.

Farmers markets, which sell produce grown by local urban farms, are now accessible to the citizens who live in Wards 7 and Ward 8. Many of  these markets which are making a difference in the east of the river communities through what is known as the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  The CSA program offers residents an opportunity to pre-order an entire season’s worth of produce and pick it up each week during the growing season.

Six community groups run urban farmer’s markets benefiting  Congress Heights and other Ward 8 residents. They accept federally subsidized programs such as SNAP/EBT Food Stamps, WIC, and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) vouchers.  Several other programs extend those benefits through partnerships with community initiatives.

Markets run by Arcadia Foods’ Mobile Markets and Community Foodworks work in conjunction with FRESHFARM and offer a “DC Fresh Match” program that was formerly known as “Bonus Bucks.”  The program doubles the purchasing value of the federal benefits. For example customers using their EBT for $5 get $10 worth of produce. More than 300 residents benefit from the program at Community Foodworks’ Minnesota Avenue market location alone.

Local farmers face hurdles to meet the supply and demand challenges in satisfying customers though.  They must navigate through outdated District laws that make it difficult for them to open food based businesses or use public space to grow fresh produce. In 2013, D.C. passed the “Cottage Food Law” which allows people to prepare food in their homes to sell at farmers markets and public events.  However, many experts and analysts feel the law is too restrictive and more outdated than for any other “state”.

However, local owners and the passion for community entrepreneurship continues to drive urban farmers who are partnering with local groups to make their freshly grown produce available to a larger consumer market. Community Foodworks has been expanding its food distribution model through its “Pop Up Food Hub” program. It boosts demand and increases the profit margins for local farmers and vendors by connecting them with institutions like early childhood centers, senior residences, health clinics, and the YMCA, who are looking for high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables to keep them in business.