SEABROOK – While some residents are just finishing the last of their Thanksgiving leftovers, others in Prince George’s County find themselves with little access to fresh food at all. Prince George’s County has the highest incidence of food insecurity in the region, with 15 percent of residents county-wide qualifying as food insecure, according to the […]
SEABROOK – While some residents are just finishing the last of their Thanksgiving leftovers, others in Prince George’s County find themselves with little access to fresh food at all.
Prince George’s County has the highest incidence of food insecurity in the region, with 15 percent of residents county-wide qualifying as food insecure, according to the National Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). They define food insecurity as lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Several groups are involved in efforts to combat it.
Food advocates across the county say the problem is complex, and so are the solutions.
“The number one thing we are trying to do is raise awareness that there’s hunger in every community,” said Dario Muralles, CAFB’s regional director. “Prince George’s is the most affluent majority African-American community in all of the U.S., and being so close to D.C., you would think it doesn’t exist here.”
But CAFB has found it does. The organization has developed a Hunger Heat Map tool that uses Geographic Information System data to identify areas with high rates of food insecurity. According to the Hunger Heat Map, some of the hardest-hit areas in Prince George’s County are the Seat Pleasant/Capitol Heights area, with 28.5 percent of the population food insecure; sections of Oxon Hill, with rates as high as 30.7 percent, and District Heights, which sees areas with 31.8 percent food insecurity. All of those percentages are higher than last year, the CAFB found.
“More and more you see these pockets where fast food is the only option,” Muralles said. “We’ve seen the trend of increasing food insecurity in Prince George’s. That’s the biggest part of our focus in that county.”
The situation worsened when the Safeway grocery store in Seat Pleasant closed, removing one of the few sources of fresh food. CAFB responded by pledging to deliver 60,000 pounds of groceries to families in need between Oct. 27 and Dec. 22. Hilary Salmon, CAFB chief of staff, said the organization is also working with other agencies within Prince George’s to combat the problem at its source.
“When the community comes together across sectors, solutions to old problems are possible, and Capital Area Food Bank is proud to be playing a role in making that happen,” she said.
One of their partners is the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Larry Hentz, EDC business development director, said food insecurity can amplify other problems.
“Not only does it create issues from the front end, it creates issues from the back end. It affects the education of our children. It affects the health of our citizens,” he said.
Hentz said the closing of the Safeway is illustrative of a larger problem in the grocery store industry in this area. Today, most grocers need larger footprints than are found in the county to be profitable.
However, Hentz said the EDC is taking a proactive approach. It learned of the trend from meeting with grocery executives before stores started to close, and has actively worked to attract new retailers who can be successful in the 30-35,000-square-foot stores available in this area.
“They were the ones who told us what is going on,” he said. “Instead of wasting time and energy convincing people to stay in a market that didn’t fit their business model, we decided to find stores that were interested and were a better fit.”
Hentz said new retailers like Lidl are starting to move to the county and Whole Foods is exploring a new concept called Whole Foods 365, which allows for smaller stores with more fresh produce by removing the prepared food section.
The EDC is also pursuing small, independent grocers, although Henzt said some of them are hesitant to stock fresh produce because it goes bad quickly and could result in lost money.
“The independents are doing a very good job. This is how you end up with a market where you have ALDIs, but you also have independents picking up a lot of the needs,” Hentz said.
Efforts are also underway to increase sources of fresh food, not just places to buy it. The Prince George’s County Food Equity Council (FEC) has worked with the county council on legislation to expand urban farming, giving more opportunities for people to produce food locally.
“The bill increased the opportunity for urban farming by expanding it to other zones and by opening it up to other models, because previously only nonprofits were allowed,” said Sydney Daigle, FEC director. “Many young people are interested in farming but don’t want to rent large parcels of land out in the rural areas. They want to stay in the suburbs or near the cities.”
FEC also worked with the county department of permitting, inspection, and enforcement to put in place a staff member dedicated to helping farmer’s markets get permits to operate.
Daigle said the FEC also hopes the ongoing zoning rewrite can provide more opportunities to expand farming. She said they will also continue advocating for programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to Health that would allow food stamp recipients to use their benefits at farmer’s markets and for the county’s help in determining tracts of land that would be usable by farmers.
Hentz said moving forward he wants to see the county expand tax credits to the grocery stores that do locate in food deserts – a tactic that has proved successful so far. Other items on his “dream list” include increasing density in food insecure areas to attract retailers and distributing government assistance twice monthly, instead of once, so fresh food can be purchased without going bad.