The term itself doesn’t usually require much explanation, even if most people have never used the it in everyday conversation. They automatically know what a food desert is. For those who don’t, it takes very little to conceptualize: if a person lives in an urbanized area—and most Americans do—odds are good that he or she can get to a grocery store by car within ten minutes. (Sure, walking to a grocery store is another consideration, but outside places with densities comparable to Manhattan and San Francisco, the idea of grocery shopping consistently remains a vehicular-based effort. We get groceries weekly and we load up the bags in a trunk. Or we take them onto a bus to keep the walk short.) Now it’s time to imagine the inverse of the status quo: a generally well-populated area where it may take fifteen or twenty minutes to drive to a full-scale grocery store. The only things close by are convenience stores or bodegas or other variants on quickie marts. But those are never super enough to qualify as a supermarket, which in the 21st century typically starts at about 12,000 square feet; the median is almost five times this size. Such districts of dearth are food deserts: enough population density to support a grocery store, but it does not exist, for any one of a various number of reasons. And yes, our nation’s District has its own food desert. When we think of desserts in general, Sahara, Mojave, Kalahari, Gobi all come to mind. But what about Anacostia? That’s the name of the DC food desert—or the neighborhood at least.
Anacostia first and foremost applies to the name of a nine-mile long river that flows from a source in Maryland down to its mouth at the much better-known Potomac River. And yes, this is the same Potomac the serves as the inland port for our nation’s capital. Anacostia flows along the eastern portion of Washington DC, creating a splice across the district that separates about 25% of the land area from its best known landmarks: the US Capitol Building, the White House, Washington Monument, and so forth. Anacostia broadly refers to the tapestry of neighborhoods that comprise this eastern one-fourth of the District of Columbia’s land. Rarely visited by tourists, Anacostia encompasses several neighborhoods with more distinct identities and their own names (including a much smaller, older historic district within this large area). But when locals say “Anacostia”, everyone knows what they’re talking about: roughly Ward 7 and Ward 8. The east bank of the Anacostia. One fourth of the city’s land area. And the DC food desert apparently.
And Ward 8 (the more southerly of the two wards, so I will refer to it as “South Anacostia”) is, ostensibly, the quintessential DC food desert. Since each of Washington’s eight wards is relatively similar in population—their boundaries get adjusted with each decennial census to ensure this parity—it’s reasonable to conclude that Ward 8 has approximately 85,000 people. The entire portion of the District east of the Anacostia River has about 170,000. But Ward 8 specifically, the majority of which is east/southeast of the Anacostia, has an unusually low number of full-service supermarkets. Only one, in fact. And that one location, a Giant Food (a common chain in the DC metro area), services almost the entirety of South Anacostia. (As the above-linked map shows, a tiny portion of Ward 8 crosses to the other side of the Anacostia River into the Navy Yard neighborhood, which most decidedly isn’t a food desert. But a river separates it from the DC food desert the comprises the majority of the ward.)
And a bigger problem has recently emerged. This single Giant Food location serves an ever growing market share, as the other supermarkets in the vicinity have closed. Worst of all, the CEO of the company has announced that he is increasingly considering closing several unprofitable DC-area locations. And they aren’t unprofitable due to a lack of clientele. The cause, not surprisingly, is the surge in retail crime—unpunished shoplifting, a condition that almost certainly prompted the closure of DC’s H Street Walmart earlier this year. The Giant Food locations most likely to close are those in areas with already higher than average crime levels, making the South Anacostia operation a prime target. And while some outlets report no verifiable plans of this Giant Food location closing, the Ward 8 councilman Trayon White has held a pop-up rally in the store’s parking lot—an event that appears to many in the community as a desperate plea to save the store. The South Anacostia operation first opened in 2007 in a much-heralded effort to end a DC food desert; the ward had been without a full-surface grocery store for about a decade.
All this ballyhoo prompted me to visit the South Anacostia Giant Food.
There it is, set back from Alabama Avenue SE through a sizable parking lot that also serves a small row of in-line shops (Chipotle, Rainbow, Subway, Wells Fargo Bank) in a physically separated building nearby.
These two photographs reveal a DC food desert landscape that appears eminently suburban: huge expanses of off-street parking, squat residential structures of two stories or less in the background, not a lot of pedestrians. While these features certainly characterize the immediate surroundings at this Giant Food location in South Anacostia, the average visitor unfamiliar with the vast Anacostia area would likely perceive it as urban: most of the housing is attached (duplexes or rowhomes), few of the streets allow cars to travel at speeds greater than 35 miles per hour, and at least two WMATA Metro (subway) stops are still within a half mile from this grocery store. Sidewalks are everywhere, and though Alabama Avenue SE is an important street, a backbone to South Anacostia, it remains a two-lane street for the most part, with conservative speed limits. The view from the parking lot in the opposite direction shows residences that stand immediately across from a none-too-broad Alabama Avenue SE.
Even factoring in the large parking lot, people living in these homes could easily walk to the Giant Food or the small strip of shops nearby.
In short, this particular Giant Food, the bulwark against a significant DC food desert, occupies a suburban-oriented mega-parcel in an otherwise urban setting with population densities above the average for cities. Anacostia might not look as packed together as famous DC neighborhoods like Capitol Hill or Dupont Circle, but most of the housing dates from the first half of the 20th century. It functions with the walkable character and mixture of uses typically expected in urban neighborhoods. And then it has this very big-box supermarket prototype plopped right in the middle.
The neighborhood advocates who championed the construction of this Giant Food location got precisely what they wanted: a large-format grocery store with abundant parking and a supporting row of smaller shops typically encountered in middle-class suburbia. And now, barely fifteen years later, mixed messaging suggests the location is imperiled.
Throughout my thirty-minute visit to this Giant Food in South Anacostia, I looked for visual indicators suggestive of a place that might close. And, yes, I found them. The most obvious stood sentry right there among the cars.
I can’t recall ever encountering such a device in a retail parking lot. Clearly it features CCTV, a solar panel, and lights (apparently). Though my photo fails to capture it, I do not believe it is stationary; the location in the parking lot is too awkward and unorthodox. However, I suspect it is not so mobile that it would be easy for an unauthorized person to wheel it to a new location. The best descriptor I can determine is a mobile surveillance unit hybrid, with the hybrid element coming through the combination of cameras/lights and a diesel generator that also services outlets for on-site electricity needs. The surveillance unit I have hyperlinked, a product of the company EcamSecure, appears specifically tailored to remote locations with weather extremes. It also features a tamper-resistant interface, integration with other camera systems, radar and LiDAR capability, and the a high-definition video with motion and license plate detection. I have no idea of course if Giant Food purchased an EcamSecure product, but I suspect it didn’t spare too many expenses. This location needs significantly higher caliber monitoring capability than most Giant Foods in Washington DC.
The entrance to the store reveals other safeguards.
I first noticed receipt checks taking place at Walmarts many years ago, but I didn’t really correlate it to high-theft areas, even if that was the most likely explanation. But I’ve never before seen an official sign (one that uses all the Giant Food branding tools) to make such an announcement. And by “100% receipt check”, this Giant means business: it’s not just a quick glance to validate the mode of payment. This location confirms that the items in a shopping cart match what’s on the printout. Refusal to comply will prevent a customer from leaving with the items purchased. This Giant offers a second, similar reminder once the customers have passed through the automatic doors.
Semantically I don’t see how this differs from “100% receipt check” but I’d imagine there’s a nuanced legal distinction. If these actions are what it takes to safeguard against the re-emergence of a DC food desert, most customers are apparently willing to comply.
Beyond this atypical entry signage, the interior of this Giant looks sleek. Better than average, I’d say. The company, headquartered in nearby Landover, Maryland (just across the border in Prince George’s County), has been rolling out an extensive “modernization” rebranding for which gray is the primary color, in contrast with the previous beige interiors. New typeface on all the signage too.
Clearly this location received the upgrades. Corporate is investing in it. Another interesting feature I noticed about the South Anacostia Giant was the abundant natural light.
Skylights everywhere. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this at a Giant Food before, though I’d be surprised if this is the only example. It’s quite possible this is the norm, but because many Giant Food locations in Washington DC feature a fully urbanized architectural model—they are the first floor retail in a large building with residences or offices on the floors above—skylights aren’t feasible. But the putative DC food desert, where land values are a bit cheaper, offers a big-box surrounded by surface parking. Another important detail, visible on both of the previous photos, is the abundant CCTV affixed to various lights or joists around the ceiling.
In terms of the merchandise, I was surprised that relatively little was under lock and key. Certainly not anywhere as bad as the doomsday portrayals of retailers in San Francisco or Seattle, where most if not all of the shelved products sit behind thick security glass/plastic. The South Anacostia location does not appear to have more security cabinets than most other drugstores and grocery stores in the DC area. It does, however, feature “alias” displays for certain-high value items.
Customers who want detergent must grab a voucher in front of their desired product, then trade it at the cashier for the real item. Other shelves merely looked picked over.
Prices for deodorants, from my angle, seem to have risen sharply in the last few years, so I’d imagine they are a desirable target for theft and resale. I’m not clear if the emptiness here reflects a recent theft—little else at this location looked so depleted—or if it’s simply another product that inventory management has decided to ration because of previous shrinkage problems. The situation may comport with recent news that this location specifically has decided to stop carrying certain name-brand health/beauty products or toiletries: Colgate, Tide, Advil. Interestingly, I saw one small display selling Tide, which was a huge surprise.
I suspect this is the last of the inventory the store is seeking to move as it prepares to only sell Tide products using the voucher program, or to cease carrying the products altogether. For those who need these standard household items, the store will continue to carry store brand and private label versions of toothpaste, detergent, and ibuprofen.
If store management has decided to pull a sizable number of high-value items off the shelves, it should come as no surprise that quite a few are empty. This sight was the strangest of all I could find in this last remaining supermarket holdout against a DC food desert.
The Aisle 19 was completely walled off. Nothing to see here, and no access. The adjacent shelving on either side (aisles 18 and 20) of this empty aisle was equally depleted.
Antihistamines, palliatives, first aid, and digestive health still line the shelves on the opposite side of Aisle 20, but nothing across. I can only imagine that this reflects a consolidation of items into the remaining shelves, after pulling out the name brands that this location has opted to no longer carry. This Giant Food has more shelving and floor space than it has brands/items it is willing to sell.
Much to my surprise, one aisle that has remained generally intact contains all the booze.
Like most states, DC does not allow liquor sales in supermarkets, but it was still remarkable to see all this beer and wine available for the plucking. Alcoholic beverages remain a hugely popular target for theft, but I saw no evidence that it was under special scrutiny at this Giant Food—aside from the usual abundance of cameras and other monitoring devices. However, a sign at the entrance to the beer/wine aisle caught my attention:
The sign lists the reduced hours for beer and wine sales. But it’s old. As of the time of this article, most Giant Food locations have reduced their hours and close at 10pm; the others stay open until 11pm. In the DC food desert, however, operating hours are even shorter: it closes at 9pm and opens each morning at 7am. A 14-hour operating day may still seem generous to a German, but most American full-service grocery stores operated from 5am or 6am until midnight until recently,
The reduction of hours probably serves as yet another attempt to deter miscreant behavior, which is more likely to take place in the extreme beginning/end of the day when supermarkets have their lowest patronization levels. My visit on a late afternoon Saturday caught it at a busy time, with longer lines reflecting (I suspect) the higher scrutiny afforded during checkout.
The pharmacy also didn’t look particularly unusual—a bit surprising given the highest-value items of all sit behind this counter.
Meanwhile, the checkout line seemed to be more heavily staffed than I often see at Giant Food, with cashiers manning most of the stations.
Disregard the numbered lights, which suggest only a few are operating. I’d say all but one or two were humming that afternoon. Yet the line still wrapped its way down to the pharmacy, which I suspect is an indicator that this Giant Food genuinely does receive high patronage. But the bigger signal: the ceiling overhead and the extreme number of gumdrop shaped CCTV cameras suspended from it. I’ll admit I didn’t notice them while I was physically present at the store, but seeing them on this photo in hindsight, it certainly isn’t typical.
The final indicator that something is amiss at this Giant Food location is obvious upon a return to the outside.
As is typical of most supermarkets of this size, the facility has two primary entrances. And, from my experience with Giant Foods, both entrances usually remain open throughout most of the day, but one often gets closed during the last hour or two of operations. At the South Anacostia location, the entrance in the above photo is permanently closed. I have to be careful what I reveal while taking photos in a setting like this—I don’t want to arouse suspicion in a place where staff are hair-triggered to flag suspicious behavior—so I photographed a cart of clearance items, but the background reveals that permanently closed entrance, with a security guard standing in front to make certain nobody attempts a getaway.
In summation, the indicators aren’t promising: they reveal the extreme measures this location must take to fend against theft, which it seems to try to balance against giving customers a deteriorated shopping experience. I appreciate that many of the initiatives are subtle and non-invasive: relatively few aisles require a customer to flag a staffer to unlock one of those austere plastic or glass sheaths. But it’s obvious that grocery store management has invested in both infrastructure and operational strategies to safeguard against theft, and while these initiatives may help prevent a small amount of theft on the spot (or at least deter the criminally minded), thieves customarily find clever workarounds. Or, if they cannot do so, they simply shift to the next nearest supermarket that deploys weaker intervention strategies—good for salvaging this particular Giant Food location, not great for the region. And, thus, the DC food desert is born.
But is South Anacostia truly a food desert? Do community advocates deploy the term over-zealously to help add melodrama and amplify a crisis? That seems to be the case in the most commonly identified DC food desert. I certainly recognize that Anacostia (South and North) has fewer grocery stores than other parts of the District. But, urban though it may be, it is indeed less densely populated than much of the city. The income density is lower; thus, the retail is likely to be a bit more sparse, even if ‘merchandise shrinkage” weren’t a major problem. Secondly, this particular Giant Food location is only about a half-mile from the DC-Maryland line. See the map below:
I have circled the focus supermarket on Alabama Avenue SE in purple. Less than a half mile from that boundary is another full-service grocery store: a Giant Food, near the Shops at Iverson (formerly Iverson Mall). And it opens at 6am. Only a ten-minute drive between this Maryland location and the South Anacostia Giant Food. Not exactly a food desert. A Save-a-Lot stands less than half of a mile from the Giant Food at Iverson. And another Giant Food sits right on the DC-Maryland border, in the suburban district of Oxon Hill (near National Harbor)—also just a 12-minute drive from the focus location of this article. I have circled all these in a blue-green. Meanwhile, another big DC chain, Safeway, stands in what one might call “Central Anacostia” (if Suitland Parkway is the dividing line for South Anacostia); this location is fully within DC limits and is just a six-minute drive. Meanwhile, North Anacostia (a term I will apply to any part of DC east of the Anacostia River and north of Pennsylvania Avenue) has its own Safeway as well.
I will concede that the entire portion of Washington DC east of Anacostia, historically the most economically challenged part of the city, has a lower prevalence of name-brand, nationally known supermarkets than most of this large and prosperous region. But what are the minimum travel distances expected to brand something the DC food desert? Is an additional ten-minute drive so onerous, especially in the area of online grocery ordering and delivery? Given the extremely narrow profit margins that characterize grocery stores, how is it reasonable to expect one to remain operational if it must spend increasing money for security, then still fails to generate revenue with so much of its inventory walking away? The South Anacostia location of Giant Food is no doubt a community hub due to the comparative underrepresentation of such stores. But I’m not yet wiling to flag the situation as a crisis if it has an obvious and understandable origin. A supermarket embattled by thievery can only expect to endure so much. Reduced access to a necessity like food can at last prompt a district to address localized crime in all its forms—not just the teenagers stealing Colgate toothpaste off the shelves (for black market resale) at an otherwise pretty nice looking supermarket.