Photo of paper bags full of groceries
Photo by Maria Lin Kim on Unsplash

The D.C. Council unanimously approved an increase in spending on local food accessibility programs during a budget vote held virtually July 20. Even with greater market access and expanded options, however, advocates say lawmakers didn’t address low-income residents’ greatest barrier to nutrition: having the grocery money to spend.

Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact on D.C.’s poorest residents, the council’s new spending plan for 2022 would allocate federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan toward a range of nutrition programs. Totaling $941,000, the money will fund free pop-up markets, cooking lessons, meal delivery for ill residents, and subsidized produce for corner stores in low-income neighborhoods. Though supportive of these investments, representatives from multiple nonprofits are frustrated that their central policy recommendation to the city — increasing benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — was left out.

“The reality is the amount of funding … does not allow for a nutritious diet for citizens in the District of Columbia,” Winnie Huston, food policy strategist for nonprofit D.C. Greens, told Street Sense Media. “People are running out of money, out of food by the end of the month. They’re having to make choices about food over rent, or transportation or other issues. People are going hungry, kids are suffering, families are suffering.”

After a 15% increase in December in response to COVID-19, federal SNAP benefits (also historically known as food stamps) are scheduled to be reduced back to pre-pandemic levels beginning Oct. 1. The change, which would impact approximately one in five D.C. residents, will decrease the amount of money low-income households receive monthly for their groceries by around $100. 

“People are suffering in the pandemic, as everyone knows. But it’s had a disparate impact on people who are already suffering,” Huston said. “What are people on the margin going to do?”

Though Washington already had a comparatively large population of residents who lacked consistent access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle, the pandemic exacerbated the issue significantly. According to a September 2020 report by the D.C. Food Policy Council, COVID-19 increased the number of food-insecure residents by half, from 10.6% of the District’s population in 2019 to more than 16% just a year later.

These trends also showcase racial disparities in food access across Washington. Per the same report, between April and May of last year, 28% of Black households with children and 10% of Hispanic households with children reported trouble securing enough food. That compares with only 1.5% of white households under the same conditions. 

Table courtesy of DC Hunger Solutions

These nutritional disparities directly predict worse health outcomes for residents of color. African Americans in the District especially are at an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and more, according to a 2016 study by Georgetown University. Deaths from COVID-19 show the same trend.

The geographic distribution of Washington’s grocery stores contributes to this racial gap. Three-quarters of the city’s food deserts — defined as having a high poverty rate, low car access, and at least a half-mile of distance from the nearest grocery store — can be found east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. Whereas other wards in D.C. have anywhere between nine and 16 grocery stores to serve an average of 91,555 people each, Wards 7 and 8 have a combined total of three grocery stores to service over 160,000 residents.

In order to address this grocery gap, the D.C. Council also included over $57 million in targeted tax incentives for supermarkets and sit-down restaurants in Wards 7 and 8. According to a 2020 report by D.C. Hunger Solutions, another nonprofit advocating for equitable food access, two new full-service grocery stores are planned in Southeast D.C. already.

Still, without the money to spend in those stores, nonprofit leaders say the new investments won’t reduce food insecurity as comprehensively as lawmakers hope.

The map indicates the location of grocery stores across the District

Map courtesy of DC Hunger Solutions

“It is not enough for the District to invest in brick-and-mortar stores without simultaneously addressing issues of poverty,” said Lauren Biel, the executive director for D.C. Greens, during her testimony before the Committee on Health last month. “This budget is all about the supply side, without thinking through the demand side. This is a recipe that will set the new grocery stores up for failure.”

The council’s investments in nutrition programming comes with another string attached — the $941,000 of funding for these programs was reallocated away from cash originally slated to subsidize the Capital Area Food Bank. Though Mayor Bowser’s initial budget proposal provided $1.94 million to the food bank, which services D.C. as well as surrounding areas in Maryland and northern Virginia — the council’s budget plan reduced that sum nearly by half.

According to Chief Operating Officer Jody Tick, the Capital Area Food Bank doubled the number of meals it provided to its clients in 2020 — stark evidence of COVID-19’s impact on residents’ ability to securely purchase their own food. In their annual impact report, the food bank noted that half of its nonprofit partners shuttered their doors last year, while retail donations were only a quarter of their usual amount.    

Ultimately, though, the council reduced their share of federal stimulus dollars. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, who chairs the committee, explained the decision in his recommendation to the full council. “The Committee encourages more focus be put to programs that promote local spending and for clients to shop for their own foods,” he wrote.

Huston pushed back on the notion that lawmakers had to cut one in order to fund the other. “By taking money from one program to fund other programs, you’re in effect pitting programs and people against each other, when the reality is there’s enough money to fund all of the programs,” she said. 

D.C. Greens, the Capital Area Food Bank, and a number of other District nonprofits are all members of Fair Food for All D.C. Coalition, a network designed to enable cooperation between food accessibility advocates in Washington. “It’s unfortunate that this particular approach was taken. That’s part of why we try and work as a coalition, to support each other in the budget asks,” Huston said.

The D.C. Council is expected to hold its final vote for the 2022 budget virtually on Aug. 3.