Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources . In 2016, approximately 28.3 million adults in the U.S. (11.5 % of all adults) and 12.9 million children (17.5 % of all children) lived in food-insecure households .
Food insecurity is associated with some of the most common and costly health problems and behaviors for people of all ages including asthma, dental cavities, developmental risk, anxiety, poor academic outcomes, and frequent colds among children; cancer, heart disease, pregnancy complications, poor sleep, and diabetes in adults; and hypertension, congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, and lower cognitive function among older adults .
The DC Healthy People 2020 goals related to this topic include:
1. Decrease the number of “food deserts“
2. Decrease economic food insecurity
Food security and access in this assessment is characterized by both an individual or households’ financial capability to afford food and also the proximity to affordable and nutritious food. Access to consistent food is directly related to emotional and physical well-being. Individuals in food-insecure households experience higher rates of chronic health issues, mental health problems and difficulty concentrating in school or work, and low diet quality leading to obesity and poor health . Research shows that children in food-insecure households experience toxic stress, or prolonged periods of high stress hormones, which affect long-term health and development . The compounded effects of food insecurity on children and adults result in lower quality of life and hinder their ability to reach their full potential and thrive as District residents .
While the District has a lower rate of food insecurity compared to the US, there are populations and geographic areas that are more affected than others. For example, rates of food insecurity are higher for households below the federal poverty line. Unemployment, access to transportation, and disability status are other factors that increase the risk of food insecurity . In addition to these socio-economic factors, communities with high prevalence of food insecure homes are often characterized by lack of access to affordable nutritious food retailers. Establishments that provide fresh and diverse food options are often concentrated in a few selected communities, resulting in people living in low-income areas to spend additional time in search of nutritious and affordable food options. The District’s food environment includes the presence of “food swamp” options, which are communities that have a far greater number of convenience stores, liquor stores, and carry-out restaurants  than grocery stores. Food swamps are usually concentrated in low-income communities, further compounding the risk factors contributing to food insecurity.
SNAP & WIC
From 2015-2017, 11.2% of District households were food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access throughout the year to enough food to meet their needs . Of food insecure households in the District, 4.5% experienced “very low” food security, meaning their normal eating patterns were disrupted because of lack of money to buy food. Food assistance programs can help address barriers to accessing healthy food.
In 2017, approximately 15% of District households received public assistance income and/or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits . SNAP, formerly called food stamps, is the largest federal food assistance program. The SNAP program provides nutrition assistance to eligible low-income residents. In July 2017 there were approximately 69,400 DC households participating in SNAP compared to the almost 79,800 households participating in July 2015, a 13% decrease [2, 3].
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supports the health and development of pregnant and post-partum women, infants, and young children by providing a specialized package of healthy food tailored by a nutritionist, nutrition counseling and education, breastfeeding support, and child wellness screenings. WIC participation in the District has also decreased steadily over the last five years. In 2017, approximately 13,600 District residents participated in WIC, a 13% decrease from 2013 when almost 15,700 residents participated [2, 5].
Research has found that participants can face several barriers of participating in food assistance programs, including: length of appointments to enroll in the program; negative grocery store experiences such as embarrassment from using vouchers; and costs associated with participation including transportation and time . Economic recovery both nationally and in the District might explain part of the decline in participation. However, the decrease is likely attributed to many SNAP- and WIC-eligible households moving out of the District due to the rise in housing costs .
Children & Adolescents
In 2010 the District’s Healthy Schools Act was enacted with the goal of improving nutritional quality and providing students with access to local and fresh foods that they need to excel in the classroom. In the 2016-17 school year the District ranked 3rd among all U.S. states for school breakfast participation with 34,500 students eating breakfast in 206 DC schools . DC is the leading state in summer meal participation which provides free summer meals at 140 sites across the District including libraries, recreation centers and community organizations .
The District’s population growth over the last two decades has resulted in a surge of retail food stores in some areas, but Wards 7 and 8 continue to have limited healthy food options. On average, there is one large full-service grocery store for every 16,400 residents, but that ratio jumps to one grocery store for every 55,000 residents east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. The distribution of both large and small grocery stores across the city is inequitably distributed between neighborhoods with concentrated wealth compared to neighborhoods with concentrated poverty .
Farmers markets, corner stores, and both community and school gardens help increase access to fresh nutritious food, but they are not substitutes for the affordability and the variety of products available at full-service grocery stores. The Healthy Corner Stores Partnership implemented by DC Central Kitchen and funded by DC Health and the Department of Small and Local Business Development was developed to expand access to healthful foods and wellness education. In 2017, there were 71 Healthy Corners stores in Washington, D.C and 62 farmers markets located across all eight wards. Three-quarters of the participating corner stores were in Wards 5, 7, and 8 with the remaining in Wards 1, 4, and 6 .
The District is using several other tools to attract grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods. In October 2017, Mayor Bowser announced that the District was providing financial support to two new grocery stores in underserved areas through the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund, a pilot program that provides financial support for nonresidential components of mixed-use projects in underserved neighborhood . The first grocer will be part of a larger mixed-use development in Penn Hill in Ward 7; the second will be a Good Food Market on the ground floor of a 195-unit affordable housing development in Bellevue in Ward 8 .
Assets & Resources
• DC Greens Community Food Guide
• Food and Friends (202-269-2277)
Provides home delivered meals and groceries to people with serious illnesses (HIV/AIDS, cancer, poorly-controlled diabetes, or receiving hospice care) that limit their ability to get food for themselves. Must be referred by a healthcare provider.
• The SHARE Network (1-800-21-SHARE)
• DC WIC
• DC Department of Human Services Benefits
• DC Office of State Superintendent of Education: Wellness & Nutrition School Programs
•DC Health SNAP Education Program
Promising Practices & Policies:
• D-III Improve access to affordable, nutritious food through full-service grocery stores, mobile markets, and programs that provide financial assistance and incentives for buying fresh fruits and vegetables.
• NWP-II Incorporate best practices to improve healthy food offerings in schools.
• NWP-IV Encourage development of full-service grocery stores in food deserts and augment offering of healthy, affordable foods at corner stores.
Citations & Additional Data Resources
1. Healthy People 2020. Food Insecurity.
2. Food Research & Action Center. The Impact of Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Poor Nutrition on Health and Well-Being. 2017
3. The DC 2018 Food System Assessment
4. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) State Activity Report. 2017
5. US Department of Agriculture: Food and Nutrition Service. WIC Program, Annual State Level Data FY 2014-2018. 2018.
6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Food and Nutrition Board; Committee to Review WIC Food Packages. Literature Findings on Barriers and Incentives to WIC Participation and Redemption. May 2017.
7. Washington DC Economic Partnership. Retail and Restaurants: New DC Grocery Stores Since 2000. 2019
8. U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates. Table B19058