D.C. Walmart pullout could make food desert problem worse

Legend: Red Star - Planned Walmart; Black dot: Existing grocery store in D.C.; Blue dot: Existing grocery store in Maryland

The D.C. Council's Wednesday vote to pass a bill forcing big box retailers to pay a $12.50 minimum wage, and Walmart's corresponding move to cancel plans to develop stores at three sites, leads to a looming larger problem in several neighborhoods.

In the neighborhoods where the three Walmarts were planned - Skyland Town Center, Capitol Gateway near East Capitol and 58th streets, and the intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road - fresh food and grocery options are and have been scarce for years.

Those new Walmarts, which for the time being are shelved, would have come with grocery sections for residents of Wards 5 and 7.

"This was a difficult decision for us - and unfortunate news for most D.C. residents - but the Council has forced our hand," Walmart said in a statement.

Walmart has long opposed the legislation, saying that it discourages investment in the city.

According to United States Census and geographical data, Wards 5 and 7 are areas that need new grocery options the most. According to 2010 census data, more than 52,000 people live in the census tracts nearest to the proposed Walmarts.

These areas are classified by many advocates, including the group D.C. Hunger Solutions, as food deserts; areas where access to grocery stores and fresh food is limited.

"For many years, Ward 7 has been a food desert and Walmart would have provided residents with additional grocery and retail options," Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander, who voted no on the LRAA, said.

Kenyan McDuffie, who represents Ward 5 on the D.C. Council, voted yes on the bill, which passed by an 8-5 margin.

A 2012 D.C. Hunger Solutions report indicated that residents in Wards 5 and 7 were among those who had to travel the farthest - .65 and .66 miles respectively - to get to their closest supermarket.

Alternatives in these areas include:

Walmart Location Nearby population Alternatives New York Avenue (Ward 5) New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE 19,939 Giant on Brentwood Road and Safeway on Maryland Avenue Skyland (Ward 7) Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE 14,751 Safeway and Murry's on Alabama Avenue Capitol Gateway (Ward 7) East Capitol and 58th streets 17,944 Few nearby. Closest major grocery stores are in Prince George's County.

Of the three neighborhoods, Skyland Town Center, which sits near the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road Southeast, is likely the best off with two grocery stores already available.

However, in the two other locations, residents are either forced to travel to get groceries or, in the case of Capitol Gateway, leave the District for Capitol Heights or Seat Pleasant in Maryland.

The prospect of thousands of D.C. residents having limited access to groceries is nothing new. According to the D.C. Hunger Solutions report, residents of Wards 4, 5 and 7 are forced to travel longer distances than any other place in the city to get fresh food.

"Low-income people, whose budgets already are stretched to meet basic needs, often do not have extra money to pay for additional transportation costs and are most affected by long distances to grocery stores," the report stated.