Mary Blackford, who grew up in and has spent most of her life in Washington, D.C.'s, predominantly Black Ward 7, used to find herself paying upward of $80 a month to get to and from the closest grocery store offering fresh food and sustainable products. Blackford wanted better access to fresh, healthful food for her community—and the chance to cultivate the kind of community and economic development that a food and retail marketplace can seed.
She founded Market 7, a series of pop-up markets offering fresh foods, lifestyle products and more across the ward, in 2017. In late 2019, Market 7 broke ground on a 7,000-square-foot food hall that will house a community grocery store and several food stalls. The project won a $100,000 grant from Essence magazine and Pine-Sol last year in the "Build Your Legacy" competition, and Blackford looks forward to opening Market 7's permanent location in 2021. She spoke with Winsight Grocery Business about addressing food inequity both at the community and policy level, as well as why grocery stores are a critical component of conversations about social determinants of health.
Christine LaFave Grace: Can you tell me more about Market 7—your vision for the permanent space and the needs it will address in the community?
Mary Blackford: I’m always fueled by community need. I grew up in Ward 7, and when I came back from college, I saw that we had a very great food apartheid problem. We have a lack of access to available fresh and affordable food, so that is always the thing that is driving me the most. I still have to leave my ward to go get food—I’ve told this story so many times about how I have to leave my ward to go get healthy food. That’s fueling me more and more—like, “I just want to be able to get up and walk to a store that offers healthy food options. I cannot wait until I can get up and walk to the store where I live." That is such a driver and driving me to really create systemic change.
I also want the community to be healthier and have better options. We have a lot of fast food around here, and there are so many people who need access to better food options. Lower-income communities, communities of color, particularly Black communities, a lot of the time, you see this correlation between health and access to healthy retail options. When you look at Ward 7 and Ward 8 in Washington, D.C., the most food-deprived wards in D.C., there are 150,000 residents between both wards; there’s only three grocery stores currently. You see that people here die up to 16 years earlier than people in other parts of the city, and this is because they are dying from illnesses like diabetes that can be solved in part or altogether through a change in diet. When you see stuff like that, it really puts the pressure on. We need to do something here now.
And then you look at the release a few weeks ago of the federal government’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and that notes that half of adults in the country have a chronic disease that’s related to diet. It’s not just about food choices, it’s about food access. What do people not understand or not realize about this issue?
Yeah, it’s true—you eat what’s around you. And it becomes quite expensive. That was my core issue. We live in the city and not everyone has a car. I had to leave my house and get in an Uber or a Lyft, and it would cost me $10 each way to go the grocery store. I would spend probably $80 or sometimes up to $100 a month extra on top of my grocery bill just to get food, and not everyone can afford that. You eat what’s around you, and when you live in communities where it’s all fast foods or items at the corner store that are filled with high fructose corn syrup and have a high sodium content, that affects your life. It affects your quality of life, quality of health. There is a big correlation between retail and health.
When we look at the social determinants of health and what really makes a person healthy, we have to start making sure that we place healthy food sources at the center of our analysis. A lot of people don’t look at grocery stores as health centers, but they are. They’re your first health centers. What you put in your body, that really impacts your life. If we started looking at grocery stores as health centers, then maybe we can have change. What I want to see, and what is also the hallmark of what Market 7 is developing, is a new sort of marketplace that is not just food, but you’re also coming here to get educated; you’re also coming here to learn; you’re also coming here to get remedy and nutrition for your body.
You’ve talked about why the term “food desert” isn’t accurate and why “food apartheid” is a better descriptor. Can you discuss that?
I always try to make this distinction. A farmer actually made this distinction to me because the language around the industry regarding food deserts is changing. Food deserts are explained as a lack of food in a particular geographic area. But when you say something is like a desert, it makes it seem like it’s a natural occurrence and that it’s a geographic problem—like you just live in the wrong ZIP code, and that’s why you don’t have food. And that’s not the case.
Food apartheid is a term that takes into account the long history of discriminatory practices against communities of color, particularly Black communities, that have left them economically disenfranchised and therefore not as attractive to economic opportunity of engagement for larger companies. This feeds the deserting effect in communities—it’s really like an economic desert.
This is what we experience in our community. The reason we don’t have more grocery stores is the area median income is too low to attract the sort of retailers that find it viable to be in communities like Ward 7. But why is that the case? Why is there this concentrated area of Black people that the area’s median income is that low?
When you start to dig into those questions, you see that there’s a long history of disenfranchisement of economic and job opportunities, educational opportunities, housing opportunities and opportunities to engage other communities to provide greater access. All of that is a long history of discrimination against Black people. All of this is why we don’t have a great food system in our community. We have to start having that conversation as we start to remedy our food-access issue and making sure that those kinds of social determinants are on the forefront of solutions and change.
At a policy level, what needs to be done to help eradicate food apartheid? Who needs to be part of those conversations, within the business world and government?
From a policy perspective, there just always needs to be an emphasis on supporting small businesses. I think small businesses make this country turn. Small business plays such a big part in our economic sustainability, so there is always a need to make policies to support small businesses being sustainable; small businesses getting resources and opportunity; small businesses also not being redlined out of communities by way of development maps. We have a lot of small businesses that have suffered in that way. We talk a lot about residential gentrification, but my goodness, commercial gentrification is happening at a very similar rate, and a lot of small businesses have been kicked out of a lot of commercial spaces because prices have been rising. There needs to be some sort of public-private partnership where policymakers could talk to developers about maintaining space and opportunities for small businesses.
Within the grocery space, do you see a greater awareness of or active interest in sourcing and buying products from Black-owned businesses, from farmers to prepared-foods makers? What needs to continue to change to support greater representation in the marketplace for underrepresented suppliers?
Last year, probably more than any other year of my lived life, at 31 years old, we as a nation had a big conversation about race and equity. I think it heightened everyone’s awareness about inequities that exist in our country. And I saw people certainly start to do more work around trying to at least be in the know. I think a lot of people bought from Black-owned businesses last year in an effort to be more socially aware and conscious and be supportive, and so that’s good.
I think over the years and in more recent history, we have seen more companies and larger corporations try to be more inclusive and have an eye on diversity. We have an initiative with Whole Foods Market (Mid-Atlantic) to bring more Black-owned businesses to Whole Foods. It is one of my missions to bring more Black-owned food and lifestyle business to store shelves. We were able to launch four new brands in Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic—we’re in six Whole Foods in D.C. and now we have a product also in a Whole Foods in Baltimore. We’re very excited about that and planning to grow that partnership in the future. And that was incubated even before last year. There have certainly been efforts in the food space regarding diversity, but I always feel like there’s more room because the gap is so large and has been large for so long.
What I hope to see in the system is continued support by way of partnerships, financing and education for small Black-owned businesses and Black farmers—how can we partner and build relationships with these providers to get them into stores? How do we get businesses retail-ready?
All of that takes money; all of that takes time; all of that takes education and a real effort from within large corporations to make sure that that is an ethos of their corporation to have that equity be a part of their fabric. I think we have to keep keeping on in that way and pour more resources into Black-owned food and retail businesses.
What gives you hope as you look forward in 2021?
Our opening! I cannot wait until this project is finished and we can start serving communities. I am very happy about that. It has been a long time coming; we have been working so hard, and I just cannot wait to see the doors open and people in our community see everything we’ve been working on.
Everything is inspiring us to get to the finish line, working in so many capacities, trying to raise money, trying to learn everything we can about construction in order to get this building up. We are working with entrepreneurs on what it takes to get in Market 7; we are working with community partners on the education piece and building out programming. We are on go, go, go. I’m very excited for that and am hoping to see that this particular project is going to set a new type of precedent around food access for our community.
You’re 31—what’s next? Where do you go from here?
So many opportunities! I hope this can be a blueprint for so many different opportunities. I want to continue doing this in other communities, particularly those that are disenfranchised and communities of color that don’t have food access. One day, I’m hoping that we can do this in other places as well, because I want to help as many people as possible. Everybody deserves access to food, and everybody deserves to live well.