Is D.C. really America's 'healthiest city'?

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Congratulations, Washington, D.C.: You’re America’s healthiest city, according to a new ranking from the American Fitness Index, an arm of the American College of Sports Medicine, which has been putting out the annual list for the past eight years.


But that may come as a surprise to some actual residents of DC, which has the third-widest wealth gap of the 50 biggest cities in America, according to 2012 Fiscal Policy Institute analysis, and where 2013 census data show that over 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line as compared to 14.5 percent nationally. Only 8 states have higher poverty rates.

“It’s a good report,” says Shamia Holloway of the Capital Area Food Bank, whose mission is to feed the D.C. area’s hungry residents. “Unfortunately for the segment of the population we serve, there are still a lot of people without food to eat, and don’t have access to quality meals.” Holloway notes that the organization serves 12% of the Washington metro region, almost a half million people.

AFI’s list defines the health of a metro area with the help of 26 health and physical activity experts who used data from the government and health organizations. More farmers markets, swimming pools and tennis courts per capita are all listed as contributing factors to why the capital won the title of “healthiest” metro area.

And at first glance, our nation’s capital does have all the trappings of a rich city: convenient bike lanes, manicured public spaces, fancy restaurants and wine bars. The city boasts at least 25 community gardens and 30 public gymnasiums.

But beneath the façade of health and wealth is a Washington D.C. with deep wealth disparities.

High rates of poverty mean less access to healthy food. According to D.C. Hunger Solutions’ website, the 7th and 8th Wards of D.C. have the highest poverty rates and highest obesity rates in the city. They also contain “food deserts,” areas where, according to the USDA, people live more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store with fresh produce.


“We’re trying to make all of D.C. healthy and not a certain segment of the population,” said Holloway.

So how can DC can improve?

“It’s a matter of accessibility,” said Dr. Walt Thompson, chairman of the American Fitness Index, about improving the health cities. "Influence city leaders, or city council, or both: they’re the ones who create the budget.”


Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.