Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.

The Safeway on Georgia Ave. and Randolph was a disaster. Rotten meat regularly rested on refrigerated shelves and the stench spilled into the parking lot. Several floor tiles were broken or missing altogether. Produce was wilted or soft on good days and spoiled or moldy on bad days. Shopping carts were often broken down and covered in sticky grime.

This was the story for years until 2012, when the building was demolished to make way for the construction of a new incarnation of the store. In the interim, many residents of the Petworth area in Northwest Washington, D.C. who had lived there for years—the neighborhood sits just north of Howard University—were forced to walk, drive or find transit over longer distances to different neighborhoods to buy groceries and other basic needs. For most residents, this meant traveling to places that were not within close proximity.

Already on the edge of a burgeoning gentrification movement in 2010, Petworth has since taken off in economic growth and rising property values. "Artists" moved in, bike lanes and racks showed up beside streets overnight, coffee shops and niche stores sprang from seemingly nowhere. The new sprawling citadel of a Safeway returned triumphantly in 2014 to a coffee-scented community of swanky condo blocks, cyclists and more young white faces than ever.

Close to the far side of Petworth in neighboring Brightwood, the first Walmart in the District popped up not too long ago, complete with a fancy interior and a robust grocery section. These two huge stores bookended a long grocery-deficient area and promised to help irrigate the food desert at the heart of Petworth. But as the healthier and tastier food options replaced what previously existed, so did whiter and wealthier faces replace the lower and middle-class black and brown faces that had long lived and died there.

Grocery stores and farmers markets, it seems, are common components of gentrification with ambiguous results on increasing food justice. They are correlated with displacement of low-income residents in inner-city areas to low-resource suburban areas—"food hinterlands" where distance and transportation barriers often make nutrition issues worse. Perhaps, then, it's adequate to look at grocery stores more as agents of gentrification and potential weapons of cultural violence against the poor than as saviors for our country's obesity epidemic.

Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.

The logic on food deserts and how to fix them seems casually sound at first glance, if devoid of supporting evidence. The buzzword caught on in the early aughts, when researchers truly began teasing out some of the roots of poverty in the obesity epidemic. The popular thinking was that poor and low-income people tended to be more obese and less healthy both because they had no real knowledge about nutrition and because they lived in areas that were physically far from healthy foods. Urban planning tended to stack fast food restaurants near poor neighborhoods more closely than grocers that provided quality foods needed for a balanced diet. Thus poor folks had a "basket preference" for processed and fast foods, which in turn made them sicker and more obese.

The solution to such a simple problem seems equally simple: inform poor folks about better nutrition choices and get more good groceries to them. On national and local levels, both liberals and conservatives embrace solutions following those basic principles. Even as funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food-purchasing assistance programs was slashed, public figures applauded national efforts like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) that sought to increase grocery access. When quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year, Ken Regal, the director of Just Harvest, a group fighting hunger and poverty, said "[HFFI] will certainly help in the development and expansion of foods that provide food in what otherwise would be food deserts, and that's a good thing, but whether that makes up for [food stamp cuts] is another story."

In previous efforts to promote her "Let's Move" campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama lauded mayors for easing zoning and permit requirements for grocery stores to move into food deserts. One of her stated goals of the program is "to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities all across the country." Obama's campaign to get people moving, increase awareness about nutrition and get farmers markets to disadvantaged areas was so politically safe—and universally accepted as necessary—that she remains easily one of the most favored public figures in this country, despite being married to one of its least. Locally, across several large metropolitan areas, efforts to move grocers and farmers markets near poor neighborhoods have often been met with wide acclaim. These were the rare policy options that worked in a free market system and helped increase quality of life for disadvantaged communities. Slam dunks, they seemed.

But the evidence that grocers and farmers markets actually irrigate food deserts never came. In fact, the actual existence and mechanisms of food deserts have been questioned. The developing body of research has suggested over the past few years that while spatial access to groceries is a factor, economic and cultural access are more important. As Betsy Breyer, a researcher from Portland State University noted, "I don't think the [food deserts] idea captures the full spectrum of food access possibilities and problems in poor communities." In many cases, even building expensive stores directly next door to poor people, while solving the "food desert" issue from a definitional perspective, actually does little to help the underlying problem. Public perception and policy, however, have been retreating from the woefully inadequate but somewhat compelling conclusions about nutrition justice at an absolutely glacial pace.

Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.

The conflict between public policy, perception and local facts and realities came to a head in national news when earlier this year residents of a once-predominantly black neighborhood in Portland successfully rallied against the building of a Trader Joe's on a vacant lot in the area. Many folks were baffled. Why wouldn't people in this place labeled as a clear food desert rejoice at the fact that they could get great groceries (and tasty cookie butter) right down the street? But what outside viewers and eager Traderites willfully ignored was that many citizens were deathly afraid of gentrification and being displaced from their own neighborhoods in a city well-known for aggressive gentrification, much of which had involved early incursions by large chain grocery stores.

Breyer said that in the case of Trader Joe's in Portland, the food desert concept was "used as an excuse to push an agenda that had nothing to do with food access for low-income communities" and had more to do with providing a rationale for securing access to cheap, promising real estate for developers and, eventually, the chain. The lower-income inhabitants of the neighborhood had figured out what policymakers and informed citizens across the country hadn't: that the courtship dance with grocery stores was a dance with death for the people that needed the groceries most. The jig was up.

It's not a coincidence that most of the academic work in debunking common knowledge about food deserts comes from Portland. The city is a hotbed for gentrification, one where poor black and brown communities are near-powerless to stop the onslaught of young and mostly white inhabitants that move in and displace residents. These gentrifiers move in on the heels of cycles of city divestment, shady city planning, blight and subsequent "revitalization" strategies that often featured grocery stores as a vanguard. It's no secret that the proposed Trader Joe's was the result of some of this questionable dealing, and the evidence within Portland at least was more than enough reason to give residents pause about accepting the new grocer at its word.

Researchers out of Portland have noted that food deserts where food is simply not spatially available are less common and less problematic for poor residents than "food mirages," areas where groceries are close but still not affordable or culturally acceptable. Low-income areas in Portland are rife with food mirages (those in the North and Northeast are the most extreme) and gentrifying areas (those with the highest rates of ten-year change in white population) are the hardest hit. In gentrifying areas of Portland, especially along the studied gentrifying zone of Northeast Portland, grocers are just as likely to make food inaccessible to poor residents as they are to solve nutrition justice issues.

The 2013 study by Breyer and Adriana Voss-Andreae suggested that as low-income residents were pushed out of gentrifying food mirages, they were pushed into food hinterlands with true access and transportation issues in resource-poor East Portland. The larger effects of gentrification also took a toll on the pockets of low-income residents as well. As Jamaal Green, also a researcher at Portland State University discussed, "of course, many of the residents who stayed through the bad years, primarily working class and low income blacks, were unable to take advantage of the new attention and reinvestment of the area due to their inability to tap into equity markets. The result has been a rather dramatic displacement of black people and working class whites in some [Northeast] neighborhoods."

Evidence for the grocery-stores-as-displacers model is persuasive nationwide. Whole Foods, a chain that is both well-loved by its consumer demographic and a notorious symbol of lost neighborhoods, has become adept at both identifying nascent gentrification scenes and aiding in their development. Whether by push or by pull, the "Whole Foods Effect" is seen by marked property value increases, which is a boon for developers, young residents that moved in during the waves of divestment, and proponents of "revitalization," but terrible for long-term low-income residents that are eventually and aggressively displaced.

Whole Foods was an anchor of gentrification in Washington, D.C.'s originally low-income and high-minority Logan Circle neighborhood in the early 2000s and came in with a wave of displacement and development that was hostile even for D.C. In the five year span around the store's construction, property values in some blocks quadrupled, the black population in the Ward decreased by 20 percent, and almost every building was replaced. Now the area is the densest neighborhood in the city, one of the whitest and has rent prices that can easily top $2,500/mo for single-bedroom units. Nationally, evidence in other areas suggests that even for those low-income residents that are able to resist displacement, grocery stores don't actually make them healthier or any less likely to be obese.

And yet, wasn't that the whole point?

Irrigating the (Food) Desert: A Tale of Gentrification in D.C.

Petworth is the next trembling domino that will fall in D.C.'s gentrification offensive. Waves of gentrification have coursed through the Capitol's narrow numbered streets and wide avenues: up from Logan Circle to Shaw, through the U Street corridor, Columbia Heights (all with grocery store anchor points) and now are primed to irrevocably alter Petworth.

The facade is currently one of peacefulness. White, Latino and black residents of all ages walk through the double sliding doors of the huge produce cathedral under the giant Safeway sign. The store's sheer massiveness imposes a sense of security and safeness on a neighborhood street that now regularly features the bright blue lights of police patrols and the flashing lights of bikers even in the dark of night. This is clearly a Place, something meant to be the nucleus of some greater community, with sprawling arms of steel, concrete, glass and brick condos serving to impose its latent will. But residents were ambivalent about whether that Place would include them.

"We might be in trouble. I don't blame anyone for it, but folks are in financial trouble," said Jeff Gallman, a long-time resident and community organizer canvassing outside Safeway. "I like the store and how nice it is, but we have to make sure the consumers are all thought of."

Another shopper told me anonymously that "the food is just not as affordable. I like it, it's nice, but we can't shop here everyday, you know?" But the attitudes differ among demographics. When I asked Tony Papaousek, a recently established resident, what he thought of the store, he said, "It's nice. It's in walking distance and healthy and I can afford it. I'd recommend it."

But Jamal Khalif, a longstanding Petworth local, isn't convinced. "It's all a plan," he said. "And you know whose plan it is."

Vann R. Newkirk II is a freelancer, fiction writer, sc-fi lover and advocate. You can find him at @fivefifths on Twitter.

[Photo and map by Vann R. Newkirk II]