Entrepreneur Mary Blackford is close to opening a 7,000-square-foot food hall in Northeast D.C. that will give underserved communities in Wards 7 and 8 a place to buy prepared food and fresh produce from Black-owned businesses. Blackford says construction at Market 7 (3451 Benning Road NE) is under way, and she’s hopeful the market will be able to open by the end of the year, or early in 2022. In the meantime, she’s been hosting monthly community pop-up markets in areas like the developing plot that used to hold the Fletcher-Johnson school.
Inside Market 7, eight food stalls will feature cuisines from across the African diaspora. Residents will be able to shop for prepared food and produce to take home, and there will be a small hydroponic farm called a “live pantry.” Located in a long-empty building, Market 7 will have a very modern look, with garage doors that roll up on nice days. Blackford sees it as a community gathering spot that will host events like cooking demos and classes.
Blackford views the project as a corrective measure to the “food apartheid” that residents who live east of the Anacostia River face. She doesn’t like to use the term “food desert” to describe the lack of grocery stores and fresh food options. “A desert sounds like something that is a natural occurrence,” Blackford says. “But the disparity that we actually suffer east of the river in Ward 7 and Ward 8 is due to a long history of discriminatory practices against communities of color that has been intentional.”
Blackford wants Market 7 to illustrate how food can be healing, and how improving one’s diet can help alleviate health problems such as diabetes. “There is an access issue but there’s also an educational gap that we can [help with] as well,” she says. “I always like to say that our work is at the intersection of sustainable health, but also sustainable economics for communities. We’re trying to bring businesses together to actually help with these food disparity issues and provide further education.”
This idea to open a market came to Blackford after she lived in Ghana during a teaching program in college. Local collective marketplaces full of farmers and artists left an impression on her. As a vegetarian, she found it difficult to shop for food in her neighborhood when she moved back home.
“We only had three grocery stores east of the river to feed 150,000-plus residents compared to some other wards that have 10 grocery stores in one single ward.”
Blackford says she often hears that no grocery stores will want to move into low-income areas, but her experiences in Ghana showed her how a community can provide for itself. According to data that DC Health Matters collected, Ward 7 is 92 percent Black or African American with a median household income of $42,201. Ward 8 is 97 precent Black or African American with a median household income of $39,473. In both wards, around a quarter of the population is below the poverty line.
The pandemic caused more delays for Blackford than she anticipated, but she received a big boost last summer after winning a $150,000 grant as part of national competition in Essence for female-led, Black-owned companies.
Market 7 also attracted the attention of Whole Foods Market. Kathleen Wood Leverenz, the grocery chain’s principal Local Forager (aka director of local purchasing) is currently working with Blackford to identify entrepreneurs of color and to bring Black-owned products onto Whole Foods shelves in D.C. and beyond. Leverenz and Blackford created a pitch day to meet with local makers.
Products available at Whole Foods that will also be sold at Market 7 include Soilful City’s Pippin Hot Sauce, which is made with heritage peppers that have a link to early African-American farmers, along with candles from Frères Branchiaux Candle Co., run by three young brothers. The two other product lines are a packaged Easy n’ Tasty Jollof Rice and Herbspice Nutritional Yeast-based spice blend.
“They are elated, they are so happy about it,” Blackford says of the entrepreneurs’ response to being sold at Whole Foods. “Part of the Market 7 dream is to just see more Black businesses on shelves.”