Is the Anacostia River a Food Delivery ‘Red Line’?

East Side Residents Complain of Scant Options, Poor Service

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ANC 7F Chair Tyrell Holcomb says food service discrimination against residents on the east side of the river is “very evident.”

Patricia Howard-Chittams has lived in her Southeast neighborhood for twenty years. She says very few food companies will deliver to her home, located on the east side of the Anacostia River in the 20019 zip code. She says many of those that do will not bring her food to the door, but instead ask her to come out to their vehicle to retrieve her order.

“I refuse to order from New York Pizza or from any company which will require that I come out into the street to obtain my food,” she said.

‘Simply Nothing to Order’
But those principles limit her already minimal options. Few restaurants deliver to her neighborhood, and many online apps such as Amazon Restaurants list no options within her area at all.

“There is simply nothing to order,” she said. “When you open the DoorDash app, it reflects no stores which deliver to this location.” PostMates and Amazon Restaurants offer no service for the 20019 or 20032 zip code. DoorDash began delivery to homes in the 20019 zip code March 28, and there are only a few options in Amazon Restaurants available to residents in 20020, located between Wards 7 and 8.

For Howard-Chittams and other residents, the lack of food delivery to their home is evidence of further prejudice exhibited by businesses against residents of the neighborhoods within those zip codes. On neighborhood social media sites, some point to the lack of food delivery options as evidence that businesses view Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods as poor and dangerous, hypothesizing that drivers fear by exiting their cars during delivery they will leave vehicles vulnerable to theft and themselves to robbery.

“I am annoyed that the discrimination continues,” Howard-Chittams said. “Crime in Ward 7 is less than Ward 1, but you can receive delivery almost everywhere [in Ward 1].  I could order from Capitol Hill to my parents’ home in Northwest; but I was unable to have those same items delivered to my home in Southeast.” Capitol Hill is located less than two miles across the river from her neighborhood.

Howard-Chittams remembers when there was a Domino’s Pizza and a Papa John’s that would deliver, but they stopped offering delivery when the restaurants located on the east side of the river closed down. Now her standbys are Thai Orchid and Mama’s Pizza, both of whom will deliver to her door.

A representative for Domino’s Pizza said that delivery on the east side of the river ceased when the leases on the local Domino’s locations expired and the buildings were redeveloped. Domino’s delivery is unavailable in Wards 7 and 8, though there is a location at 900 M St. SE, just under a mile across the bridge from homes in the 20020 zip code.

“Our stores have a 9-minute delivery area based on rush hour traffic,” she said. “The area you are referring to may not be reachable within our delivery time limit.”

‘A Great Opportunity’
But neighbors say there is a service vacuum where they live that local businesses could be using to expand their customer base, if they’d be willing to give it a try.

Jessalyn Walker moved from the Atlas District north of H Street NE to Marshall Heights a year and a half ago. Her new neighborhood is located in zip code 20019, the same as long-term resident Howard-Chittams. She says that she had previously had access to a variety of options in the Atlas neighborhood, but now she has virtually none.

“I’m a vegetarian and I’m sort of morally opposed to the fast-food industry,” she said. She said she chooses Thai food as the best of the options, but one of the two restaurants she depended on has since declined to deliver.

“There is an opportunity for additional healthy foods to be delivering in our area,” she argues, pointing to recently opened options on the H Street corridor. “It could be a great opportunity for them to expand their customer base.”

Vicious Circle
But it can be a vicious circle. Where there are fewer food options, it is harder to guarantee food quality and delivery time. So, customers located in areas with fewer restaurants also have fewer delivery options.

“As we consider expanding to additional markets, key considerations include operational logistics (such as traffic and the availability of Dashers) and restaurant availability,” said a representative for DoorDash. “When DoorDash launches in a new market, it is common to have a gradual rollout across neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. Based on a variety of factors, including restaurant density, we are able to expand our coverage areas.”

Food delivery is available to some east of the river neighborhoods, but with limited choices. “In the last few months we’ve had one option, and that’s Uber Eats,” Walker said. She is pleased to have consistent delivery, but she says that the service only provides too few options to choose from, most of which are fast food. She had been accustomed to up to fifty options, with vegetarian and fresh choices among them.

Uber Eats and the Uber company overall have made an effort to serve the area and to add to the local economy. Uber Eats provides a minimum of 15 options for any search, presenting availability based on an algorithm calculating restaurant locations and traffic conditions. Areas of greater restaurant density will have more options than areas with less density, they say, but the radius is extended to provide options to every user so long as those options are within an achievably deliverable location.

The company has made an effort to invest in the area. In October of last year Mayor Bowser and Uber announced that a new Greenlight Hub, a support and resource center for local Uber drivers, will open this spring at the East River Park Shopping Center in Ward 7.

But while Uber Eats is making an effort to provide options, Walker says many are fast food, and as a vegetarian they aren’t for her, though recently several H Street restaurants are offered including Maketto and Red Rock. And the lack of nutritious choices in restaurant delivery mirrors the lack of access to groceries.

Vince Gray (Ward 7-D) speaks with River Park East Assistant Manager Jerome Jackson Aug 17, 2017, during the Councilmember’s unannounced inspection of the store. Gray has introduced no less than four pieces of legislation intended to facilitate retail competition.

Food Access
The issue with food delivery compounds the problem with food access in the area. Residents of wards 7 and 8 continue to fight for better access to grocery stores. According to DC Hunger Solutions, with a population of more than 70,000, residents of Ward 7 are limited to two Safeway stores; add the single store in Ward 8, and three grocery stores serve 164,000 residents.

In that context, food delivery provides a much-needed source not only for convenience, but access to food itself.

Delivery from the two grocers located in the ward, Safeway and Peapod is available. Peapod, the delivery service offered by Giant Food, says it offers full service to Wards 7 and 8, with delivery times available in two-hour windows from 6 a.m. until 1 p.m. “Peapod believes everyone deserves access to healthy, fresh foods,” said Chief Market Officer Carrie Bienkowski. “Online grocery shopping is not just a convenience, but a necessity in many areas without access to healthy food.”

But newer grocery delivery services are far more limited. Online fresh food retailer FreshDirect offers door to door delivery of grocery items, including fresh food as well as meal kits, appetizers and alcoholic beverages. However, for customers living in neighborhoods east of the river, delivery windows are extremely limited. A search of the site revealed that customers in these three zip codes could only place orders for delivery between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, the middle of the working day for most families.

FreshDirect notes that they deliver to all wards in the District and says the limited hours can be expected to change. “Prior to our launch, we met with a number of district and community representatives to share our launch and future expansion plans. In our meetings, we shared that we would serve all wards with limited availability in the first phase of our launch,” said FreshDirect’s Vice President of Public Affairs Larry Scott Blackmon through a spokesperson.

“Our next phase involves transitioning into our new state-of-the-art headquarters in the South Bronx in the coming months. Our move will enable continued growth, expanded capacity, and increased availability in all wards. We look forward to expanding the number of timeslots and zones in the DMV shortly.”

Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7-D) has been focused on issues of food access within Ward 7, notably holding grocers such as Safeway to account for the quality of food and condition and service at their stores and introducing three bills to Council in order to make the area more attractive to business.

He said the lack of delivery access is another example of discrimination against residents. “[It’s] one more example of the sadly numerous ways as a result of geography, our residents here on the East End do not get the same results and options as of those on the West End,” Gray said.

‘It is Unconscionable’
Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7F Chair Tyrell M. Holcomb (7F01) agrees. Pointing to the discussions at ANC 7F meetings about a proposed Checkers restaurant at the former site of the Domino’s restaurant (3780 Minnesota Ave. SE), Holcomb says that the area needs more healthy options. Acknowledging legislation of Councilmember Gray that looks to reward investment on the east side of the river, he wonders if policy changes are key to meeting needs.

Holcomb said the issue with food delivery is a symptom of the attitude of business towards the area. “People think they can’t make a profit in this community,” he said. It echoes concerns with the availability of other food services, such as fresh food grocery and healthier restaurant choices.

The problem is not new, he noted, but he thinks newcomers to the ward are “shedding new light on the issue,” and calls for a strong stand and strong action.

“It’s not a have or have not issue,” he said. “It’s a race issue. Nobody wants to say it, I’m going to say it. And it’s not going to change if we put up with it.”

“We in Ward 7 deserve the same retail and amenities as the other wards,” he said.

“It is unconscionable. It’s downright criminal.”

For residents, that expansion can’t come soon enough. With the proliferation of online food delivery services, they had hoped for additional access to food within their communities. Instead, they say, businesses are not even giving customers a chance to spend their money on good, healthy local foods. It is, they say, a missed opportunity for both customers and businesses.

“We need to have the chance to avail of these services. People in our area are willing and ready consumers, and we need to be given a chance to prove that,” Walker said. “We’re ready, and we’re hungry for it.”