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Anacostia residents struggle to find fresh meat, vegetables, fruit in the food desert of their neighborhood

By Ayah Mahana

Charletta Alexander  Photo by Ayah Mahana

Charletta Alexander rides a bus 25 minutes to the Giant grocery store in the Douglass neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C. to find fresh produce. 

Even then, the long-time Anacostia resident sometimes has to travel across the Anacostia River and into another neighborhood to find food that is of the quality she desires.

She would “rather go down to the Safeway at the Waterfront than up the street because the produce is fresher in comparison to what we have over here,” the 47-year-old woman said. 

Residents of the historical D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia struggle to find affordable and accessible clean groceries due to the prominent food desert in their area. 

According to a study conducted by the D.C. Policy Center, 11% of D.C. is categorized as a “food desert.” Of that 11%, about 50% is located in Ward 8, which is the historically Black neighborhood of Anacostia. 

The D.C. Policy Center defines food deserts as areas that lack efficient access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. The key word in that definition is access, which can be impaired or limited by several factors, such as income, location, time, and the ability to travel to a store. 

Alexander said she feels that the prices that residents east of the Anacostia River are forced to pay at the only full-service grocery store in the ward are unfair and overpriced for the quality of produce they receive. 

“It feels like the prices are reasonable anywhere else but here,”  Alexander said. “Once you get over the bridge, it’s like it’s better over there. It’s like we’re the black sheep of the family on this side, and it’s not right.”

Alexander’s experience is not an isolated one. Many Anacostia residents deal with the same difficulties on a daily basis. 

 Calvin Ferguson, a 59-year-old new resident of Anacostia, noted that since moving to the neighborhood 4 months ago, he has experienced difficulties in accessing groceries and that he is forced to shop at a Walmart located on the far Northwest side of the city in order to find food that he can afford. 

“There’s no grocery stores around here. The little corner stores, they don’t have much to offer, you have to go to big stores…You got to travel far to get to a decent store to get what I want and what I can afford.”  -Calvin Ferguson, Anacostia resident

“There’s no grocery stores around here,”  Ferguson said. “The little corner stores, they don’t have much to offer, you have to go to big stores…You got to travel far to get to a decent store to get what I want and what I can afford.” 

Resident Jason Kelly said he feels that, in addition to the lack of quality groceries within the area, the root of the problem can be addressed through education about the issue of food insecurity east of the Anacostia River. Kelly also said he felt that another way to avoid food security is through more local farming, thus creating more access to clean food. 

“If we actually had conversations and education around how to actually farm and make use of all this space and land…There’s tons of green space to do anything with it,”  Kelly said. “For as many people that are here who are suffering from food insecurity and being in a food desert, it would just be amazing if they could weave that into their education systems a bit more.”

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s current exhibit “Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington,” which is scheduled to close in September, 2022,  aims to do just that. 

“Part of what we wanted to highlight is the many dimensions of the issue of food insecurity, both the historical roots of the contemporary realities, but also the ongoing challenges that communities face,” said Samir Meghelli, the senior curator of the exhibit.

The museum’s goal is to educate the community about the issue of food insecurity, Meghelli said. Meghelli said access to clean and healthy food is often directly related to wealth. 

“One of the central issues is poverty. The very direct issue of people lacking the means to be able to afford fresh, healthy food. Any solution that doesn’t begin to address the root causes of poverty is not going to solve the problem of food insecurity.” -Samir Meghelli, senior curator Food For the People exhibit

“One of the central issues is poverty. The very direct issue of people lacking the means to be able to afford fresh, healthy food,”  Meghelli said. “Any solution that doesn’t begin to address the root causes of poverty is not going to solve the problem of food insecurity.” 

Meghelli said the metrics often used by grocery companies to locate generally exclude communities where the area median income is lower than in other areas.

Jenelle Cooper,  the community services coordinator at the museum, said though the situation has improved marginally, it took a great deal of community organizing and protest from residents in order to grab the attention of those sitting atop the corporate ladder. 

“We pick up the meat here, and it looks totally different than if you go somewhere else… you really have to look through and find something that’s presentable,” she said. 

Food security organizations and small businesses in Washington, D.C. are working towards providing the community of Anacostia with solutions to food insecurity.

People such as Amanda Stephenson, owner of The Fresh Food Factory, have dedicated their work to making fresh produce and clean food accessible to residents of Anacostia. 

Located in Anacostia, The Fresh Food Factory is dedicated to better serving its community with access to healthier food options. 

“The Fresh Food Factory is a social enterprise that creates an ecosystem for residents in the food space,” Stephenson said. 

Stephenson’s mission is inspired by her life growing up on a farm and her father, who, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, turned to a clean diet and was able to extend his life expectancy by nearly 18 years. She has experienced firsthand the importance of access to clean foods and produce. 

“Being east of the river, seeing the disparities, I think it’s pretty sad … This area has definitely been overlooked, undercapitalized and underserved and something needs to be done,” Stephenson said. “I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see.

Other organizations such as D.C. Hunger Solutions are also working towards closing the gap in food insecurity through advocacy for policies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

A sign on Good Hope Road, outside of Grubbs Southeast Pharmacy & Mini Mart, offers healthy food incentives for customers using SNAP benefits. Photo by Ayah Mahana


According to D.C. Hunger Solutions Director Beverley Wheeler, the main purpose of SNAP is to provide individuals experiencing insecurity with affordable access to food. The DCHS also works towards broadly educating the public about the issue of food insecurity in D.C.

“We want to educate people about the amount of poverty and hunger that exists in the nation’s capital. People don’t understand that we are number one in the nation with senior food insecurity,” Wheeler said.

Statistics show the District is home to the highest number of senior residents experiencing food inaccessibility in the country, he said. 

DCHS’ mission is to strengthen policies dedicated to food security such as the Nourish DC Fund and the Food Access Fund.

“The Nourish DC Fund has helped small businesses and entrepreneurs expand access to food in their communities,” Wheeler said. “The Food Access Fund is also being put into action to help us get more small, medium, and large grocery stores in those areas. It is important that this follows through because it is at these stores where our constituents can use their SNAP benefits.”

Another organization dedicated to alleviating the stress of food insecurity in Anacostia is Bread for the City, whose mission is to provide access to basic needs that for many are otherwise inaccessible. 


George Jones, CEO Bread for the City


“We provide direct services to people living in poverty, to provide food, clothing, medical, legal, social services. And then we work with community members and what we call a community organizing strategy,” Chief Executive Officer George Jones said.

Bread for the City operates as a food pantry as they distribute groceries to individuals in need. Delivering between 1,000 and 2,000 bags of groceries a day, the organization has established themselves as a well trusted resource for residents in Anacostia.

“We always intended to be a kind of safety net, and a stopgap for families who are food insecure,” Jones said.

Jones said he calls what’s going on in neighborhoods like Anacostia with  predominantly black people with low incomes a food apartheid, not a food desert. 

“Food deserts connotes something that’s natural,” Jones said. “But the truth of the matter is, it is apartheid. This is something that’s not natural, it’s something that’s been created to be inequitable, and unequal, and separate from what others receive.”

Portrait of Ayah Mahana

Anacostia is one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in the Washington metropolitan area. So, when I first began researching it, my struggle to find anything about the community that was not related to crime or advertisements for new developments in the area came as a bit of a shock.