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Anacostia's food gap a 'failing for the District'

Tuesday - 12/11/2012, 8:06am  ET

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The Anacostia Supermarket Warehouse closed its doors Nov. 30. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - On the corner of 14th Street and Good Hope Road in Southeast, a chain link fence surrounds what used to be the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket, the area's only grocery store. Now, a dumpster blocks the entrance and men in hard hats walk through the doors.

Across the street, a corner shop serves beer and chips and not much else.

Now that the market has closed, residents must traverse a long, steep hill to the Safeway more than a mile away on Good Hope Road.

"Unless you have a car, there is really nowhere for you to grocery shop," says Shevanne Buckner, an Anacostia resident.

"You have to get on the bus or even the train. Imagine if you have a whole basket of groceries to carry."

The only other fresh food option nearby is Yes! Organic Market almost 2 miles away on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Owner Gary Cha recently threatened to shut it down after just two years, but community leaders pressured him to remain in the neighborhood.

Cha acquiesced, and is now renaming the store "Healthy Gourmet Market" in hopes of attracting more shoppers, reports The Washington Post.

But while the problem with Yes! was logistics - the parking lot was not accessible to drivers heading west - Warehouse Supermarket did not offer quality products, says Nikki Peele, director of marketing and business development at ARCH Development Corp., which promotes economic growth east of the Anacostia River.

"For the segment that can't drive or needed something walking distance, that was the primary source of food," she says. "But those in the community who do drive ... they weren't shopping there."

Councilmember Marion Barry, who represents Ward 8, sees the food gap as just another example of Anacostia being marginalized, both demographically and geographically.

"I can name example after example - whether it's jobs, affordable housing - Ward 8 has been left out of this booming economy of the District of Columbia," he says. "There is hope, though, that we're going to try to turn it around."

Barry wants to close the food gap with the help of the D.C. Council. He is eyeing the possibility of creating some kind of "corporation" to attract and subsidize supermarkets in "food poor areas."

"There are 73,000 residents in Ward 8 and we only have one supermarket and we have a number of corner stores that don't provide all the nutrients we need," he says.

For Buckner, buying ingredients for even the most basic of meals can lead to multiple shopping trips on the bus. She tries to stay away from McDonalds and bake her own chicken nuggets at home, yet feeding her three children healthy meals is like a game of chess.

"[The Safeway] runs out of meat all the time, they run out of juices, they run out of the main stuff that people want," she says. "Then you have to go to a whole other store."

The growing food gap could be averted when the fate of the Warehouse Supermarket is decided. As first reported by Washington City Paper, Good Hope Investments LLC purchased the property in November and could transform the space into a dialysis center, a dental office, childcare center or even another organic food store.

Peele is hoping for the latter.

"This is truly a failing for the District as a whole," she says. "We have to have viable food options in the neighborhood."

A community leader who has lived in Congress Heights since 2007, Peele says there is an over-saturation of social services that do not generate income for Ward 8. Agencies are attracted to the low rent, but don't help to improve the local economy, she says. And big name food chains don't want to open up because there is no income to support their business.

"Thus, the people won't really get the services that they need, like having a place to eat within walking distance," she says. "It's an unending cycle."

Peele says the food gap is just another reason residents who can afford to leave Anacostia do as soon as they are able. She recently stayed in a hotel in Southwest while her home was under construction, and was shocked by how much her quality of life improved during her three-week stay because of the nearby amenities.

"I almost forgot what it was like to walk to the grocery store," she says.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)