Bryson Wilson is a Leaders of Color fellow, a healthcare advocate and a former employee of the H Street NW Walmart that closed March 31.
The closure of a Walmart store may not register as a major community loss for most people. However, for the residents whose lives, and in many ways survival was underpinned by the store, the closure of the H Street NW Walmart at the end of March may well be exactly that.
A neighborhood nucleus since 2013, the store welcomed people from all walks of life, including me, a former employee of the store from 2017 to 2020. It was my first entry-level job opportunity. Being in the heart of DC, the H Street Walmart was more than a store, it was a site of community connection for many customers — myself included.
Some used SNAP benefits, some came in for money orders to pay rent and utilities, and some customers were weekly if not monthly pharmacy customers. As a customer service associate, I was able to connect with people from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, government workers, teachers, students, union workers, tourists, and Congressional employees.
It was also Walmart’s most centrally located outpost in DC, situated adjacent to several low-income neighborhoods. Some neighbors came in every Friday to cash their checks, send money to loved ones both international and domestic, cash their tax returns, return back-to-school items, and purchase money orders for rent.
The store served an area that has historically been underserved by such full-service grocery stores –which the H Street Walmart had along with its other retail offerings.
Recent research by the DC Policy Center shows that there is a specific geography to food access in DC. So-called “food deserts” are neighborhoods that lack ready access to a full-service grocery store.
The Walmart on H Street NW was just blocks from one such residential area. It’s a neighborhood with multiple public and low-income housing buildings with thousands of residents who call the area home.
Several blocks and a dozen railroad lines over on H Street NE, there are two higher-end grocery stores including a Whole Foods. These stores are bright and new with a wide range of products and foods.
They are also above the budgets of most of the residents who used to depend on Walmart as their primary food store. This is just one more example in a long line of neighborhood assets that lower income Washingtonians depended on closing up shop, leaving either no other option or pricier “new” options.
According to Feeding America, almost 66,000 D.C. residents are facing hunger, including 1 in 6 children in the District. Nearly 29 percent of households receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits–formerly known as food stamps–or about 108,000 residents.
In total, about 14,000 D.C. residents make use of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known commonly as WIC. Access to food is not just a matter of convenience for thousands of D.C. residents, it’s a daily struggle that has major consequences for their health and wellbeing.
But it’s an issue made worse by historic rates of inflation with grocery costs skyrocketing over the past year. Food pantries across the DC region and across the country have seen unprecedented spikes in the number of people they serve as a result. Food prices continue to rise with the cost of pantry staples like eggs, butter, and bread seeing double digit price increases as recently as this past month. The average monthly SNAP benefit in the District in recent years has amounted to a few hundred dollars.
U.S. News recently ranked Washington, D.C. as one of the best cities to live in last year. But that’s little comfort for the tens of thousands of DC residents who continue to struggle to put food on the table. This is just another example of how the District’s income and opportunity gaps are continuing to grow rather than shrink.
As the store closes, I can’t help but think about all the memories I made and the community I was part of at the store. From former colleagues to customers and neighbors, the store offered not just physical nutrition, but social sustenance as well.
It may just be one big box store closing its doors, but its impacts will reverberate in the lives of D.C. residents facing some of the greatest challenges.