Local entrepreneur Mary Blackford didn’t realize she was growing up in a “food apartheid” during her childhood in D.C.’s Ward 7. The lack of big-box grocery stores and healthy food options didn’t become apparent until she was a college student in Boston, studying business at Babson College. Lost in the aisles among food options and colorful products galore, she was overcome with a realization: This assortment of goods was simply alien to her and her upbringing.
“I remember going to a few grocery stores and my friends would just grab things and put things in their basket,” she says, recalling the carefree attitude of her fellow patrons. “I thought that was weird. They weren’t checking the expiration date, they weren’t reaching around in the back for the freshest option. These are things we did in Ward 7.”
The gap in food disparity between her hometown ward and the area around Babson College in Massachusetts didn’t shrink while she was away, either. Upon returning home as a vegetarian, Blackford found it even more difficult to find goods.
“A lot of food around here is fast food, burgers, fries, fried chicken — and this doesn’t exist in most places,” Blackford says. “There are walkable options [in other wards]. If you go to certain wards, they have 10 grocery stores and you can get salads and smoothies. We do not have that east of the river and it shows in the health disparities in our communities.”
Blackford’s concerns aren’t unique. According to a December 2020 report released by D.C. Hunger Solutions, Wards 7 and 8 had worse health outcomes than other wards in the District, including diet-related diseases and self-reported health issues. The report also highlighted that while some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods experienced a boom in grocery and dining options from 2010 to 2020, that same time period saw Ward 7’s grocery store count go from four to two.
Because of this and her burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, Blackford opted against sitting on the sidelines in hopes for a heroic grocery store or unforeseen initiatives. Instead, she founded Market 7 Food Hall, which started as a series of pop-ups in 2017 that featured local vendors and healthy options for the community in Ward 7. After several years of success with the monthly event, Blackford is now in the process of opening a permanent space for Market 7, a 7,000-square-foot food hall with eight stalls intended to feature cuisine inspired by the African diaspora.
“Yeah, I guess I’m a pretty ambitious person,” she says with a chuckle. “I was here and every weekend I’d have to venture into the city to find food, and I got tired of it. I remember sending a text message to a friend who helped me map out the idea. It was always the goal to have a permanent space. We wanted a space in the community.”
In planning the pop-ups and food hall, Blackford drew heavily from her experiences from a college teaching program in Ghana. In those communities, she says people were heavily involved in creating market spaces together with different local businesses and creators collaborating in order to strengthen and enrich the community. In trying to unite her own neighborhood residents, Blackford says she has received nothing short of full support.
“My community, family and mentors have been very supportive in making sure this company and project goes all the way,” Blackford says.
During the planning stages, Blackford enlisted the help of community members who got together with Legos and physically constructed miniature versions of what they envisioned in a food market.
“We broke our community into groups. Some people wanted a place to hang out, some families wanted a place to be on Sundays, etc. They’ve been very supportive. Even when we got the space, it was a dilapidated building but businesses and friends came out and helped.”
Market 7 has received outside interest too, including grants with the city and one from Essence magazine for $150,000. Blackford isn’t surprised by the breadth of support because she says people are finally starting to realize the importance of food in preventive health.
“I think people are emphasizing a lot of efforts around community health and health equity,” she says. “We started to examine the social determinants of health and found there’s more of a move in communities of color to eat better. People are really trying but you eat what’s around you.”
Though Market 7 likely won’t open until late 2021 or early 2022 (the date is still TBA), Blackford has lofty expectations for her project.
“Market 7 is a cultural anchor in our community,” she says. “We have eight spaces, provided by eight Black-owned businesses. We’ll also have a grocery space, a cafe space and a bar space. We’re bringing back things we lost [during Covid], and I think the programming of the space will involve the community learning to live more sustainable lives. We have a lot of partners and we’ll continue to work with them. The community is waiting for this. People are eager to come in.”
Though giving people a place to congregate and explore are important components to the Market’s future, the end goal of education and narrowing the gap on food disparity remains both the ultimate short- and long-term goal. Rather than the common “food desert” term thrown around by studies and research papers, she prefers the aforementioned “food apartheid,” to describe the systemic inequalities of these locations. An inequality she’s eager to help change.
“I’m very centered in service,” she says. “I love helping my community. This is my home; this is where I grew up. Food desert sounds like a natural occurrence, but people are getting away from that [phrase] because it’s not natural. These are things that were a result of discriminatory practices. We’re shut out of the opportunity to have these retail places that would help the community. We have to speak on that.”
And while speaking on the issue is helpful, creating these avenues for your community with your own means is even more powerful. Blackford has already signaled that she’s about more than talking: She’s about action.
“I want to give students something to look up to,” she says. “I want to teach them a healthy way to live. I want to give them service. I’m praying that everyone enjoys what we’re going to bring.”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.