Basket of vegetables. Image by Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Fighting Disparities in Food Access and Health in DC

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 23, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

There are more grocery stores in whiter and wealthier parts of the District, and low-income communities of color are often targeted with ads for unhealthy food. Residents in affected communities have been working to address these disparities in food access and health outcomes, and they’re continuing the fight with a campaign called #DontMuteMyHealth.

In 2017, people living east of the Anacostia River held a “grocery walk” to demonstrate the length a resident would have to walk to access a supermarket, and residents have been creating their own farms and markets. Now a variety of advocates are organizing through #DontMuteMyHealth, which “is about equitable access to healthier lives.” Reception has been enthusiastic.

“We are getting so many people who want to be ambassadors,” says Ronnie Webb. Webb co-founded #DontMuteMyHealth with Stuart Anderson in June. “They can organize events, they can talk about these issues about health in their community. It’s really an overarching space that we built that amplifies the voices of all public health.”

Organizers say they want to address the structural causes of food insecurity in Wards 5, 7, and 8, and help residents advocate for their own health. ​​​​​​They’re planning to hold another grocery walk, and have also organized basketball games and healthy eating workshops.

Most recently, the #DontMuteMyHealth campaign supported a bill introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and supported by eight other councilmembers which aims to change the way sugar affects consumers’ health. The Healthy Beverage Choices Act of 2019, announced on October 8, will change the current 8% sales tax on sugary beverages, and instead create a 1.5 cents-per-ounce excise tax city-wide.

Ads target low-income residents for unhealthy food

There is a direct intersection between grocery gaps and increased consumption of unhealthy, sugary products, according to Yolandra Hancock, professor at the Milken School Institute of Public Health at the George Washington University. Wards 7 and 8 have a total of three full-service grocery stores for close to 150,000 residents, according to DCist, while as of 2016 Ward 6 alone had 10 full-service supermarkets to serve its approximately 82,000 residents.

“When we don’t have access to quality grocery stores, particularly in communities of color and lower-income [communities], we have more corner stores,” Hancock said. “In more corner stores, you’re going to have a predominance of product that is unhealthy for us, and a lot of times at a price point that facilitates purchasing a lot of it.”

Beyond discrepancies in what stores are in each community, however, food and beverage corporations also target communities of color, according to Hancock.

“There are actually billboards advertising sugary drinks east of the river and in large parts of Prince George’s County, but when you go to Ward 3 or Ward 1, you don’t even really see billboards,” Hancock said. “That’s targeted marketing.”

Black teens will receive 17.1 TV ads for junk food and sugary drinks per day, while white teens will only see 7.8, according to the #DontMuteMyHealth website. The impacts of targeted this marketing combined with a lack of healthy and accessible food ultimately harm a community’s health and wellbeing.

The average life expectancy of a DC resident living in Northwest is 88 years, while a resident of Southeast is expected to live 72 years, according to the #DontMuteMyHealth website. Ward 8 residents are five times more likely to have diabetes than the residents of Ward 3.

What will the Healthy Beverage Choices Act of 2019 change?

With the new legislation, the tax on soda will shift from a sales tax to an excise tax. As a result, businesses will directly pay the tax, raising prices for consumers. This shift will make consumers think twice about their purchasing power, Nadeau says.

“The goal here in repealing the sales tax is to change people’s beverage choices and to change people’s behavior, to help them lead healthier lives and to help reduce these horrible diseases that are literally killing people in our community,” Nadeau said.

This is not the first time the DC Council has pushed for legislation controlling the impact of sugary drinks. In 2010, Councilmember Mary Cheh proposed a one-cent tax per ounce of soda, but the bill failed by one vote.

The expected $21 million dollar revenue from the new tax would go to the Healthy Beverage Choices Fund. The fund will split revenue among the “Birth-to-Three” Act, expand funding for healthy eating programs like Produce Rx, improve parks, and establish grants to promote healthy eating.

“This is what #DontMuteMyHealth made happen. It engages the community, gives the community a voice, and it also provides a platform to educate the community on why initiatives like this are so important to our health,” Hancock said. “Success for me is when everyone in the District of Columbia from Wards 1 to Ward 8 have the same access, the same life expectancy. When there isn’t an almost 20-year difference in how long people live—that’s the ultimate definition of success.”

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