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For Chinatown's Oldest Residents, a Mobile Market Brings Back the Bok Choy

The initiative helps ease the challenge of buying fresh Asian produce.

The mobile market brings a variety of fruits, vegetables, and meat that are popular among Chinatown's immigrant population. (Emily Jan/The Atlantic)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—By the time 83-year-old Lee Qi Qi and her neighbor, Dick Wong, 82, arrive at the farmer’s market in front of their Wah Luck House apartments on Sixth and H Street, the place is packed. A crowd of 20 to 30 of Chinatown’s elderly Chinese-American residents brace the chilly morning. They pick through the crates of peppers, onions, and bok choy that workers from Arcadia Farms—a Virginia-based nonprofit that brings local produce to low-income communities through mobile markets—have neatly arranged on folding tables. Bilingual signs help the patrons, who mainly speak Mandarin and Cantonese, navigate the varieties.

Lee takes a shopping basket and heads straight for the sweet potatoes, picking them up one at a time and giving each a gentle squeeze to make sure it’s firm. Wong, meanwhile, goes for the crates of apples. He examines each one, careful not to pick any that seem bruised.

“Today’s the last day for the market,” Wong says in Cantonese, “so we’re here to buy as much as we can so that we don’t have to go so far for groceries the next time.” He adds that they eat pretty simple meals, usually some combination of poultry or fish, vegetable soup, and rice. But getting those ingredients can be quite a trip: For him and the other residents in Chinatown, the closest full-service Asian supermarket is nearly an hour drive away in Falls Church, Virginia.

On the last day of the market, Lee Qi Qi, who lives in the affordable housing complex Wah Luck House, sorts through the box of apples. (Emily Jan/The Atlantic)

Every Wednesday morning since June, the Arcadia staff has rolled up in front of the 153-unit affordable housing complex with a truck full of fruits and vegetables. The market carries your typical carrots, garlic, and eggs. But for this location, they also make sure to stock up on things like bok choy, napa cabbage, and scallions—produce that is especially popular but hard to find for the roughly 300 Chinese-American residents still living in D.C.’s Chinatown.

This particular stop in Chinatown is the result of a partnership between Arcadia Farms and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Asian and Pacific Island Affairs (MOAPIA). “What you see is part of our initiative to make sure we have local, viable, and culturally sensitive produce options for our residents,” says David Do, executive director of MOAPIA.

Most of the market’s shoppers pay with food stamps and other vouchers offered through city and federal programs. When it’s time to check out, Wong pulls out a small stack of checks and vouchers that include ones from the Produce Plus and the federally funded Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition programs. He’s been saving them over the last few months, and will have to use them all before they expire at the end of November, when the fiscal year ends.

While there’s a good-sized crowd out here this morning, Jo Panero from the mayor’s office says that it’s only a tiny fraction of who usually shows up. The Produce Plus vouchers are usually handed out during market hours, and the scene can get fairly chaotic. Since today is the last day, she says, many residents have already used up their benefits.

The signs are written in English and Chinese for Chinatown’s Chinese residents, very few of whom speak English. (Emily Jan/The Atlantic)

The D.C. metropolitan area has an abundance of Asian supermarkets, with at least 20 different stores in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs. But the last full service supermarket in Chinatown closed in 2005, according to the Washington Post, shortly after a $200 million neighborhood revitalization effort began bringing touristy chain restaurants and swanky bars to the area.

Xiang Li Zeng, another Wah Luck House resident, who’s come out to buy napa cabbage for dumplings, still remembers what Chinatown was like over 20 years ago. He recalls the Da Hua supermarket—the one that closed in 2005—and the dozens of Chinese restaurants that were eventually pushed out by developers. Today, an Asian supermarket—which requires plenty of space—just wouldn’t earn enough profit to keep up with Chinatown’s skyrocketing rents.

Most of the former Chinese-American population has flocked to neighboring suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia, taking with them businesses that would have otherwise helped maintain the cultural heritage of Chinatown. For the Asian Americans left in the area, that means buying staple ingredients like rice, fish sauce, and sesame oil—as well as produce like Chinese broccoli, daikon radish, and lotus roots—requires an hours-long trip to the Great Wall Supermarket in Falls Church, Virginia. And while the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association provides a bus that goes there once a month, it can only carry 50 residents at a time. A few, like Lee, have adult children who can drive them, but for most, catching that bus is their best bet.

A Mandarin-speaking Arcadia staff helps Lee and her neighbor Dick Wong sort through their vouchers during checkout. (Emily Jan/The Atlantic)

The idea for a farmer’s market in Chinatown was born out of a forum in September 2015, when residents voiced their complaints about poor access to healthy foods. A recent health needs report by MOAPIA found that of the 187 people surveyed, roughly half were over the age of 65. And the two most prominent health conditions—high blood pressure and high cholesterol—were related to diet and nutrition.

“I thought, why don't we have sensible options here, right outside the door of some of the residents?” Do says, adding that turning that vision into reality took eight months of negotiations with various organizations and agencies. He considers his team lucky to collaborate with Arcadia Farms. “I told them at the beginning that I wanted the napa cabbage, I wanted the bok choy, and they said, ‘Yeah, we can do it,’” he recalls.

Do acknowledges the mobile market program, whose season wrapped in October, has its limits. Despite its popularity in Chinatown, MOAPIA just doesn’t have the budget to keep the farmer’s market running in the winter months—arguably when the residents need it most.

The mobile market stops right in front of the Wah Luck House, where more than half of D.C.’s low-income Chinese community lives. (Emily Jan/The Atlantic)

The coveted Produce Plus vouchers present another problem: Some residents are outside as early as 3 a.m. to wait in line for them. Do says his team is trying to find an alternative way to distribute them so they can decrease the wait time. Whatever the solution, they have to be mindful that it doesn’t violate the first-come, first-served mentality many of the residents have.

In the meantime, the residents will have to go back to relying on their children or the monthly bus to Virginia. The mayor’s office is also working with the neighborhood Safeway to stock up on some Asian vegetables, but the success of that initiative will depend on how frequently Chinese American residents shop there.

Do says they’re aiming even higher next year, starting with a push to increase the city’s Produce Plus budget from $500,000 to $1 million. That would give the residents more to spend. At $4 a head for the napa cabbage and $2 a pound for carrots, the vouchers might not go far enough for some residents. He also hopes to increase his team’s budget to keep the market open longer. Judging by the weekly lines, he says, it’s clear that there’s a demand for them.

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