Food Insecurity and its Effects in Washington, D.C.

By: Kelly Vandersluis Morgan, Ph.D.
Roots for Life Board Member

Food insecurity is a “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” (Feeding America, 2015). Food insecurity exists in every county in America, and in Washington, D.C., food-insecure areas make up about 11 percent of the total area. When residents do not have easy access to grocery stores, obtaining healthy food requires an unreasonable amount of time and money. People living in food-insecure areas may turn to quick marts, gas stations, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants for their primary nutrition (Santucci, 2017). These sources of food are typically less healthy than fresh produce and what they could purchase at a grocery store.

Food insecurity can be viewed not only as significant a public health concern, but also as a human rights issue (Chilton & Rose, 2009). A lack of healthy, nutritious food is linked to numerous health problems, high incidence of early death, and poor educational outcomes. This is particularly true for vulnerable populations like children and seniors. This has a cascading effect on people’s ability to both survive and thrive, putting them at an even greater disadvantage.

Defining the Problem

USDA defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food or the limited or uncertain ability to acquire such food for a household. Further, very low food security occurs when one or more people in a household were hungry over the previous year because they could not afford enough food, according to USDA’s monitoring of the extent and severity of food insecurity in US households (DC Hunger Solutions, n.d.).

Often used in conjunction with describing a food insecure population, a food desert refers to geographic areas where people have limited access to healthy food (Smith, 2017). Specifically, Smith defines a food desert in DC as an area where:

  • The walking distance to a supermarket or grocery store is more than 0.5 miles,

  • Over 40% of households have no vehicle available, and

  • The median household income is less than 185% of the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Poverty is a significant factor in food insecurity and in the creation and maintenance of food deserts. For the D.C. area, the Capital Area Food Bank has defined poverty based on 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. Poverty rates are determined by the number of members in a household and their annual income, but the federal standard does not include cost-of-living factors such as rent, gas prices, and other incidentals that are higher in the DC area than other parts of the US. This population represents the working poor (Capital Area Food Bank, 2015).

According to Feeding America (2015), as poverty and unemployment increase and home ownership decreases, food insecurity increases. Across the US, food insecure people report needing an additional food budget of $16.28 per person per week, which, annualized across all food insecure people in the US, equals a $24.2B food budget shortfall (Feeding America, 2015). Certainly, this is a national crisis, but the food insecure in DC feel the effects even more.


The Size of the Problem in D.C.

One in seven D.C. households is struggling against hunger, with 14.5% of the residents being food insecure (DC Hunger Solutions, n.d.; Capital Area Food Bank, 2015). DC Hunger Solutions (n.d.) estimates that 4.9% of that population suffers from very low food insecurity.

D.C.’s long history of racial and economic divisions and disparities has contributed to the creation of food deserts in the city’s poorest wards (Smith, 2017; Hayes, 2017). Beverley Wheeler, director of DC Hunger Solutions stated, "It's a fact that hunger and poverty go hand in hand. With any increase in poverty, we can expect more hunger, higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and behavior problems" (Milloy, 2017). Further, census findings show that the poverty rate for African Americans in DC is 27.9% - almost four times higher than the 7.9% of whites (Milloy, 2017). Though the District's median income is one of the highest in the US, there is a greater than $100,000 discrepancy between median income for white families and for African American families. Grocery stores and other businesses providing fresh, healthy food go where the money is, magnifying the creation of food deserts.

Of the 49 full-service grocery stores in D.C., only three are located in Wards 7 and 8, both poor, predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, and few of the 40 farmers' markets are located in these areas (Milloy, 2017; DC Hunger Solutions, n.d.). Milloy (2017) compares this to wealthy Ward 6 where there are at least 10 full-service grocery stores and counting. By area, the majority of food deserts are located in Ward 8, while Ward 7 contains the second largest portion of food deserts; yet Ward 3 has no food deserts and Ward 2 has one that is only 0.13 square miles (Smith, 2017).

In addition to being home to the city’s largest food deserts, Wards 7 and 8 have the District's highest poverty rates and highest obesity rates (DC Hunger Solutions, n.d.). The food security gaps remain despite efforts like the FEED Act, DC’s Food Policy Council, the Capital Area Food Bank, and multiple nonprofits (Sturdivant, 2017a).

Why are People Food Insecure?

Smith (2017) conducted an analysis of food deserts in D.C. to update old data and account for what he found to be important factors in food access. Smith’s methods used three defining elements of a food desert:

  • It is located more than .5 miles from a grocery store or supermarket

  • It has low rates of car access, and

  • It has a high poverty rate.

Because of Smith (2017)’s factors, Sturdivant (2017b) found that residents in Wards 7 and 8 have to pay increased transit costs to get to supermarkets, and DC residents who get government assistance, like food stamps, often shop in Maryland and Virginia because the food costs are lower. This compromises the District’s economy by moving SNAP redemptions to other areas (Sturdivant, n.d.). More people, however, “rely on nearby corner stores, which tend to carry less healthy food options—likely a factor in the high rates of diabetes and obesity” (Sturdivant, 2017b).

According to a member of the Ward 7 economic council, Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods “struggle to secure grocery stores and retail options because the areas don’t have large concentrations of office buildings and many residents leave the wards to work in other parts of the city. The decisions are driven by the numbers. Groceries will go where they think they can make a profit” (Sturdivant, 2017b). This leads to a growing need for stores that cannot justify coming to these parts of the city.


Stereotyping and Food Insecurity

Hayes (2017) paints a grim picture of common backwards stereotypes that suggest the poor are not interested in fresh food. DC Greens executive director, Lauren Shweder Biel, stated that “politicians across the country and citizens have been perniciously stereotyping, allowing cities to take no action because they’ve vilified low-income folks. We’ve seen lines a hundred deep of people waiting in 100-degree weather to get $10 to spend on fruits and veggies. There’s lots of interest in healthy food, but healthy food does not exist in these neighborhoods” (Hayes, 2017).

Residents in food deserts are not food insecure by choice. They are not eating a poor diet by desire. Sturdivant (2017a) found that residents are highly interested in healthier food and even healthy food delivery options. They are unable to access the food they would prefer because of transportation costs, economic costs, convenience, and the business make-up of their neighborhoods. The dominant food providers are corner stores and carryouts because they are cheap to operate.



Food as a human right

Food insecurity is a serious public health problem as well as a human rights issue. The U.S. spends over $50B per year on nutrition assistance programs, yet, there was no advancement toward the Healthy People 2010 goal of reducing food insecurity by half and we are, once again, targeting this goal for Healthy People 2020. Sadly, there has been little change in overall rates since the annual measurement of household food insecurity began in 1995 (Chilton & Rose, 2009).

The high percentage of D.C.’s population living in food insecure households, with no imminent change to the food desert environment, is near crisis level. The persistence of food insecurity rates puts adults, children, and seniors at risk for major and minor health issues, poor performance at work and in school, and continued poverty. The long-term outcomes of a population suffering from these effects is diminished productivity, a damaged economy, an increasing burden on the emergency food system, and rising healthcare costs (Chilton & Rose, 2009). Viewing food security as a human right, as Chilton and Rose (2009) suggest, “reposition[s] our understanding of food insecurity to acknowledge and actively address its social and economic determinants.”

Beverley Wheeler, director of DC Hunger Solutions, said, "We know that when there is not enough food, parents will not eat so they can feed their children. That affects the parents' job performance and makes the children anxious knowing that Mom and Dad are not eating. Teenagers will not eat so that their younger siblings can. That affects the way teens perform at school. Senior citizens will go hungry and suffer in silence" (Milloy, 2017).

One’s reliable access to enough food to fuel a healthy lifestyle is the most basic of human needs. Without this access, hunger turns to undernourishment, which leads to poor health and high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other nutrition-related health problems as well as cognitive and behavioral problems (DC Hunger Solutions, n.d.; Hayes, 2017)


Schlanger (2013) states that D.C. has a higher rate of food insecurity among children than any state, and around 31,000 children in the District do not know how they will get their next meal. Many at-risk children are provided free or subsidized meals at school, both breakfast and lunch, but the problem still exists over weekends and school breaks. Studies of low-income and poor D.C. students found that they go home over the weekend to households with little or nothing to eat and return to school on Monday hungry and unable to concentrate and learn, often resulting in behavioral issues (WUSA, 2017).

The detrimental effects of hunger on children begin during pregnancy. For a growing fetus, a mother’s lack of nutrition can lead to low birth weight and sensory problems. As babies and children grow, hunger causes them to be more vulnerable to illness and infection, and they are more prone to developmental, emotional, and educational problems. The Capital Area Food Bank (2015) found that children malnourished from womb to age 2 appears later in low IQ scores when compared to their more nourished counterparts. Hungry children are often unable to fully engage in normal daily activities with their peers, like school work, social interaction, and play. Compounding the effect, these students are twice as likely to be placed in special education and kept back a year in school (WUSA, 2017).

At home, the stress facing parents in food insecure households often affects their children. The stressful environment, due to lack of food, has been proven to lead to serious behavioral and emotional issues that can affect mental health and make it difficult for children navigate social situations (WUSA, 2017).


Many seniors are on a fixed income and are limited in their ability to travel to buy healthy food. Along with the decreased appetite that many seniors experience, food insecure seniors are further challenged when it comes to gaining proper nutrition. These food insecure seniors are at increased risk for chronic health conditions. Specifically, they are:

  • 60% more likely to experience depression

  • 53% more likely to report a heart attack

  • 52% more likely to develop asthma, and

  • 40% more likely to report an experience of congestive heart failure (Capital Area Food Bank, 2015). 


We recommend the following actions be taken in an effort to make nutritious, healthy, and fresh food more accessible to all residents of D.C.:

  • Work with local government, business leaders, and members of the community to make food insecure areas more attractive to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and supercenters that include groceries, like Walmart and Target.

  • Encourage SNAP program users to patronize their local markets and, in turn, incentivize the markets to provide more nutritious products that meet the federal program standards.

  • Work with government, local, business, and nonprofit parties to fund rolling grocery baskets for community members to use to carry groceries more easily for those who do not live within .5 miles of a grocery store. This will ease the burden of carrying a week’s worth of groceries and encourage shopping in stores for fresh food.

  • Prioritize access to year-round nutritious meals for children and seniors, the most vulnerable populations.

  • Dedicate governmental, local, and non-profit resources to educate and empower communities to thrive by connecting individuals, currently in food insecure areas, to locally grown fruit and vegetables, educating on their nutritional value, and empowering a healthy change their lives.

Roots for Life is dedicated to the final recommendation and has designed a program series to strategically incorporate ways to empower participants and encourage them to incorporate fresh produce into their day-to-day regimen. In our programs, participants learn how to: make healthy food choices, cook nutritious meals, and grow foods through fun hands-on activities. Roots for Life teaches people how to be the change in their own communities.


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Sturdivant, C. (2017a, Mar. 15). Report: More than 11 percent of DC is a food desert. DCist. Retrieved from

Sturdivant, C. (2017b, Jun. 6). Wards 7 and 8 have three grocery stores for 149,750 people. DCist. Retrieved from

WUSA. (2017). What is food insecurity? WUSA9. Retrieved from