Food access in D.C.: Q&A with Ashanté Reese

Deanwood is a neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C., in the city’s seventh ward. Longtime residents remember Deanwood’s storied history as a center of black culture and activism even as they endure the disinvestment and lack of access to resources that have plagued the community for decades. In her new book, “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.,” Ashanté M. Reese, an assistant professor of anthropology at Spelman College, uses Deanwood as a lens to examine the broader obstacles to food access and opportunity facing black communities, as well as how a narrative of self-reliance has both boosted and hindered fundamental changes in the food system. The book traces Deanwood’s history, how supermarkets and local grocers have come and gone over the past century, and how today’s residents navigate living in a section of the city that has just two grocery stores for nearly 80,000 residents. “Black Food Geographies” was released in April 2019. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Can you discuss Deanwood’s history of food access, especially regarding supermarkets that have come and gone? 

As D.C. developed and started to expand, Deanwood was one of these almost rural areas that, in the early 20th century, people were getting excited about because the railroad was coming through. There was this idea that if it was developed, more people — and people were thinking white people — would be attracted to that area.

And when that didn’t happen, Deanwood became this prime spot for black people who were migrating to D.C. or moving from other parts of D.C. because there were broad tracts of land that had been developed. There was the only amusement park in the city for black people. There was a racetrack, all these things that developed because it was this insular community that felt a little bit out of the way.

Deanwood is specific, but there is this broader story that is true of most American cities. Around the 1920s and ’30s, food distribution was changing a lot, thanks to improved transportation and refrigeration. So between 1930 and about 1960, there was this shift from these small neighborhood grocers to supermarkets. And what we see after that is middle-class flight, white flight. Supermarkets largely start to follow people to the suburbs.

Supermarkets generally have very low profit margins, so they make decisions to leave. These decisions are market-based decisions. Yet what we see in communities like Deanwood is that market-based decisions are not race-neutral. You can see that across D.C. right now. East of the Anacostia River there are three supermarkets and 150,000 residents, whereas Ward 2 has nine supermarkets. Ward 2 is whiter and wealthier.

Why do you say that supermarkets should be studied as an important part of the food-access landscape?

Supermarkets are so fascinating to me. On the one hand, supermarkets have a fairly thin profit margin, so it is easy for them to lose lots of money if a store isn’t profitable. There’s a bit of empathy that I have there, insofar as I’m empathetic with corporations.

On the community end, there’s the question of access in terms of the number of stores. But there’s also the question of quality, which came up so much for people in my research. People think a lot about where they’re going to get their food. That’s one of the reasons that supermarkets are so important.

At the time I was doing my research, I could walk to three different supermarkets. And it was great. That was starkly different from my counterparts in Deanwood. Those who had cars would drive at least 20 minutes to a supermarket. Those who didn’t would go to the local Safeway that they hated. If you have to travel far for a supermarket, if you don’t have a car, it is less likely that you’re going to buy a bunch of fresh stuff that might go to waste.

I don’t advocate for corporations being our saviors because my first priority is that peoples’ needs are met. If people want a supermarket, I want them to have a supermarket. If people’s needs are not being met, it is hard to dream up a different relationship to food. Right now we live in a time where supermarkets are the most important part of food distribution in our food system. That might change. But right now, over 90 percent of people get their food from supermarkets. So they’re important.

What were some themes that came up when you interviewed Deanwood residents about their access to food?

The first thing that really surprised me and became such an important part of the arc of the book was how much people talked about the past. I was not prepared for that. Especially with elderly members in the community who had been there for a long time and could remember very vividly that transition I was talking about. And to hear them talk about that transition was very powerful.

The second big theme then was around how much responsibility community members had for making sure they had access to good food. This was a real challenge for me. For many people that I interviewed, they felt that the lack of food access was also linked to a lack of community cohesion. And I was trying to balance that with the reality that there are many Deanwoods across the country. We can systematically track where grocery stores are and see that, on average, black neighborhoods have far less access to grocery stores than white neighborhoods, regardless of class. I was trying to balance the macro-level view and the micro-level one.

I had an idea for how to frame this problem, but so did the people who live in Deanwood. So much of the literature around food access is so macro that we forget that people are theorizing their own lives. They have words and language and opinions about what they see happening in their own neighborhoods. I tried to preserve as much of that as possible. I try very hard to present whole passages from our conversations, because these folks are smart.

Your book engages with the question of whether we should focus on the obstacles to food access or on how people build alternatives to the existing food system and create their own solutions. Can you talk about whether or how those two paths are in tension, or connected?

They’re in tension, and linked. Part of the tension is that there are real constraints. That is a real thing. One of the points I wanted to get across, though, is that the way we have historically thought about constraints has placed the responsibility in the wrong place. Supermarkets are a byproduct of other things, like neighborhood disinvestment, residential segregation. Those things are intimately tied to where resources are placed, and supermarkets are part of that process.

It’s not that people don’t want to eat healthy or that people lack knowledge necessarily. But we are living in a country where race structures a lot of what is happening — race informs where people live, race is embedded in policy. So I wanted to make that very explicit in the book.

I’m careful not to position these kinds of possibilities, things like alternative food systems, as “people will take care of their own needs.” Because I do believe that there is a responsibility on a policy level that needs to be worked out. It is my belief that if we believe that food should be a basic right, then our policies should reflect that. And they don’t. So I don’t think it’s fair for communities to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the very basic things we need to live.