I forgot the bag! This is Toni Lawson. She lives in the Southeast part of Washington, D.C. — a predominantly poor neighborhood. I forgot the bag. Your bag? Yeah. Do you want to go grab it? Yeah. ‘Cause I don’t have any money to buy bags. If, like Toni, you live in a lower-income community, have no access to a vehicle and live more than a half a mile away from the grocery store … you live in a food desert. I’m trying not to miss the bus. Toni retired from a career in the insurance industry 10 years ago, and receives food stamps on the 6th of every month. Ohhhhh! I don’t think this was an accident, not to build grocery stores in this area, because of the people here. It’s not just about black people; it’s about poor people. Toni is one of more than 23 1/2 million Americans who live in a neighborhood which the USDA calls a food desert. That means they have limited access to healthy, fresh and affordable food. For Toni, getting groceries requires traveling 2 miles, with the help of two buses. It takes 40 minutes each way. It’s a struggle to get there, especially when you’re 71 and have to carry a week’s worth of groceries back home without a car. In Washington, more than 80 percent of food deserts are located in the neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates, and where mostly black residents live. In whiter and wealthier parts of town, there are plenty of big-box grocery stores and independently owned supermarkets. But in Southeast D.C., leading chains don’t feel like there’s enough money to be made in those poorer neighborhoods. The higher rate of crime in Southeast is another deterrent. So if you want to buy food in Southeast D.C., you generally have to get fast food or go to a convenience store. That leaves 150,000 people in the area in a food desert. Now we’re calling it what it is, food apartheid. It’s something that’s planned. A desert is natural. It’s manufactured by the planet. This is something that’s planned. And it’s obvious. Toni buys her food from multiple grocery stores, searching for the best deals. Here she is at Giant — her closest grocery
store — trying to find some staples on sale. There’s not a lot of places in the area where I live that I can go and buy food. What I do is I buy my bulk when I get my stamps. I run all over the city. Even though the Giant is here, I don’t patronize the Giant very often because it’s expensive. So I’m running all over the city. Toni is tired of traveling across the city, hunting for food. She wants more healthy food options for everyone in the neighborhood, so she’s training to be a community advocate, pressing the D.C. government to provide incentives that will attract more grocery stores to come here. Her goal is simple: I’ve been in Ward 8 [for] 21 years and we have not had a full-service supermarket for that entire time. There’s always been a break. In my area, I want to see more places for people to shop. For NPR, I’m Sasha-Ann Simons, in Washington.