Washington, D.C. is the most expensive place in the country to raise a family of four—a fact that disproportionately harms the ability of low-income residents and residents of color to thrive. Inequities extend from job security and high-quality education all the way down to families’ day-to-day ability to access healthy, affordable food. While wealthy residents of D.C.’s Ward 3 have their pick of 11 full-service grocery stores, families in Ward 8—also home to some of the highest poverty rates and obesity rates in the city—are faced with only three options. To make matters worse, higher-end stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have cropped up all over the District’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Instead of bringing access to affordable and nutritious food, the increased demand spurred by the stores can result in long-time residents being priced out of their neighborhoods.
This displacement has resulted in significant demographic shifts across the D.C. area. Until recently, black families comprised a majority of the city’s residents—about 60 percent in 2000. But as of 2014, only 49 percent of Washingtonians are black. Black families who have been displaced from the city due to its high cost of living have been replaced by an influx of mostly white newcomers, along with a growing Latino population.
Gentrification in our cities isn’t new, nor are the debates that surround it. But what is less discussed is how gentrification weakens displaced families’ access to social services that are critical to achieving social mobility. In D.C., local organizations and advocates that work to bring food access to low-income families have watched the number of families they serve dwindle.
One such organization is Martha’s Table, a nonprofit that has been part of the fabric of D.C.’s 14th Street Corridor for over 35 years. Martha’s Table provides everything from early childhood education and after-school programming to youth employment and service learning opportunities. It is perhaps best known for its Healthy Eating Initiative, which coordinates mobile food trucks and farmers markets, reaching some 20,000 residents a year.
But its holistic efforts to ensure that services are meeting the needs of the surrounding community have been compromised by a troubling trend: long-time residents and Martha’s Table beneficiaries are being priced out of the neighborhood. New residential and commercial developments in the historically black neighborhood have attracted a flood of white, affluent newcomers. Due to the lack of affordable housing in D.C., low-income residents are pushed to the periphery of the city and surrounding suburbs, which has undermined the ability of city-based organizations like Martha’s Table to serve them. As Director of Stakeholder Engagement Ryan Palmer says: “35 years ago, this was the epicenter of all of the things that we are trying to address. Now people are taking two to three buses to get here.” In order to stay true to its mission of working in the communities it serves, Martha’s Table is reducing services in its current location and moving its headquarters east of the Anacostia River to Wards 7 and 8 by 2018.
Even when residents don’t leave the neighborhood, they now have to travel far and wide for basic necessities. Kim Williams is a mother of three children who have benefitted from Martha’s Table programming for four years. She has lived in the 14th Street neighborhood for over 35 years and has seen how its changes have shaped her family’s access to healthy, affordable food. “I can’t afford to grocery shop in the area, so I physically live in the neighborhood but I leave to shop for food. The stores in the neighborhood are for new people coming [here]—not for the families who have been here for generations.”
Williams went onto discuss the tradeoffs she is forced to make to ensure she has food for her family. “It’s more cost-effective for me to buy meals from McDonald’s than to spend money on healthy food. And if I do buy healthy food, something else suffers—I won’t be able to pay my bills or something else.”
In an effort to bring a comprehensive set of services into a single location, Martha’s Table is now engaging residents of Wards 7 and 8 in order to shape what will be provided at their new headquarters. But these efforts may be undermined by looming residential and retail development projects that would add 900,000 square feet of commercial properties and 500 residences to Martin Luther King Avenue, a mere 8 percent of which will be affordable housing units. The development is already projected to shift the demographics of these neighborhoods. As Martha’s Table’s Palmer told TalkPoverty, “I would be lying if I said I haven’t wondered what changes will happen in the neighborhood between now and the two years when we get there.”
Across the city, D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK) has also experienced the effects of gentrification. Through its Healthy Corners effort, DCCK sells nearly 88,000 healthy food products in corner stores throughout low-income wards. But increased rents in those areas have undermined efforts to increase participation in the program. As Chief Development Officer of DCCK Alexander Moore states, corner store owners are “worried about getting a return on their investment and that makes it much tougher to integrate those stores into our program.” And, due to the decreased supply of affordable housing that arises from gentrification, many store owners simply cannot afford to live in the community where their store is located—which makes them less invested in building the community relationships necessary for marketing the healthy produce and increasing food access for low-income residents. The end result? Low-income residents are unable to access fresh, affordable produce at the local corner stores, while affluent newcomers have access to multiple full-service grocery stores within walking distance of their homes.
The effects of gentrification have also spilled over into the organization’s employment programs. DCCK offers a 14-week Culinary Job Training Program to more than 100 residents in order to prepare them for careers in the food service industry. This initiative has a hiring rate of over 90 percent for graduates. But, due to displacement, there is a growing demand for job training from Maryland residents who once lived in the District. It’s not unheard of for DCCK to provide job training to a parent living in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, while their child resides at a family member’s apartment in the District so they have access to D.C. public schools.
A key way to meet the needs of long-time neighborhood residents—rather than simply shifting them elsewhere—is by investing in more equitable development strategies that ensure the engagement of these residents in the planning, implementation and evaluation of development projects. Currently, there is little opportunity for residents to actively participate in discussions about changes in their neighborhoods. In a recent interview for Empower D.C., Linda Brown, a public housing resident, stated, “The main thing is that residents aren’t presented with the facts and so they can’t make sound decisions or have any input if they’re not presented with the facts.” Brown said that residents are often asked for input only once development processes have begun to take place, at which point they wield very little power or influence.
One hope for ensuring that long-time residents are able to reap the benefits of food-access initiatives is D.C.’s inaugural Food Policy Council. The Council will work to promote food access, sustainability, and a local food economy in which residents, local schools, hospitals and other organizations buy locally-grown food. Advocates like DCCK’s Moore see this development as positive. He is hopeful the Council can provide a “forum for diverse insights for what we need to do with our food system” by “investing purposefully in equity and ensuring all community voices are at the table.”
Organizations like Martha’s Table and D.C. Central Kitchen have set a good example for addressing inequities that are compounded by gentrification, such as hunger and food insecurity. The Food Policy Council has the potential to expand upon these efforts by making a more sustainable local food economy in the city. But unless we engage the very communities that these programs intend to support, these initiatives will serve a shrinking population—and not because low-income residents have achieved social mobility, but because they have been priced out.