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Finding Nutrition in the Food Deserts of California

In a state with agricultural export revenue totaling more than $18 billion annually, the Central Valley’s approximately 700,000 farm workers don’t earn enough to feed themselves properly.
(Photo: Nepenthes/Capital & Main)

(Photo: Nepenthes/Capital & Main)

Los Angelenos have become famous for their food obsessions and one long-time L.A. food critic is even the subject of a documentary that created a sensation at Sundance. What’s less likely to be reviewed in Bon Appétit, but is perhaps equally interesting, is the woeful inability of L.A.’s low-income residents to purchase fresh food.

Stores with the $15 cold-pressed juices (with a shot of turmeric) get Yelped. Less so are those stores in neighborhoods where the lettuce, if any, is wilted and unappetizing, and the 99-cent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are close to the register.

Ailene Ignacio lives in such a neighborhood—Historic Filipino Town (known locally as HiFi), where Echo Park, Westlake, and Silver Lake merge near the 101 Freeway. As community health liaison at the Asian Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance, she’s in the food fight because the national obesity rate among Filipino-Americans is the highest among Asian-Americans.

Ignacio’s parents are Filipino immigrants and she’s keenly aware of that island nation’s colonial history and how that influences food choices there and here. Filipinos love McDonald’s—a status symbol in the Philippines, where it’s expensive.

“When you’re poor everything becomes more difficult—you have two parents working multiple jobs, no local grocery—they may want to go to a fast-food restaurant.”

“When you come here to the United States and find they have a supersized version—you go a little crazy,” she says.

Filipinos will drive to a Filipino store for a taste of home, she says, but “Filipino cuisine doesn’t incorporate a lot of fruits and vegetables—and those it does tend to be highly sautéed.”

Ignacio led a team of local youth out into HiFi streets to map food availability and found fewer than half a dozen stores with any kind of fruits or vegetables. For most outlets, the survey-takers marked “no produce.”

HiFi is considered an unhealthful “food environment”—an area dense with fast-food restaurants and convenience outlets and few real grocery stores. These are far more common in low-income communities with non-white majorities than in higher income, mostly white areas, reports the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, PolicyLink, and the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research.

Acquiring healthful food is a challenge for many poor families that have limited options. A U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded study shows that fatty and sugar-packed foods are much cheaper than lean meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables. That affects health for low-income people, who suffer disproportionately from obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

The costs of those two food-related diseases—an additional $190 billion annually in obesity-related medical expenses alone—account for 20.6 percent of U.S. health expenditures. In a vicious circle, obese and overweight people—more likely to be low-income—lose work days and income due to health issues.

Food injustice and food inequality run the length of the Golden State, known as an agricultural Garden of Eden. In a state with an agricultural export revenue totaling more than $18 billion in 2012, the Central Valley’s approximately 700,000 farm workers don’t earn enough to feed themselves. Their annual earnings typically range between $15,000 and $17,500. Half can’t afford to buy as much food as they need and 48 percent cannot afford nutritious meals. And Silicon Valley’s wealthier neighborhoods boast twice the number of supermarkets per person as lower-income neighborhoods—which in turn have nearly double the number of liquor stores.

All of this translates into food insecurity—disrupted or reduced food intake because income is stretched too thin. When food choices are scarce, dietary quality drops and food-related diseases skyrocket.

“It goes back to choices we have in a community,” says Hector Gutierrez, a food systems and health policy analyst with Community Health Councils, which takes on public health inequities. “People on a tight budget opt out of fresh fruits and vegetables—they buy food that makes them feel full.”

Children in the low-income neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Southeast L.A., South L.A., and near the Port of Los Angeles live with a 30 percent obesity rate. Compare that with the more affluent and majority-white areas of Bel-Air/Beverly Crest and Brentwood/Pacific Palisades, where less than 12 percent of children suffer from obesity. In South Los Angeles and other low-income areas, McDonald’s and Burger King are on every corner, and grocery options are scarce. It’s the definition of a food desert—a low-income area where residents must travel more than a mile to reach a large grocery store. (Eighty-five percent of California’s USDA-designated food deserts are in urban areas.) Fast food outlets make up 73 percent of South L.A. eateries, compared to 42 percent in West L.A.

Community Health Councils’ Hector Gutierrez. (Photo: Tracy Fleischman Morgenthau/Capital & Main)

Community Health Councils’ Hector Gutierrez. (Photo: Tracy Fleischman Morgenthau/Capital & Main)

In L.A., transportation is a food equity issue. Only 36 percent of L.A. residents live within a five-minute walk of a grocery store. Compare that with 59 percent in San Francisco and 49 percent in Oakland.

“When you’re poor everything becomes more difficult—you have two parents working multiple jobs, no local grocery—they may want to go to a fast-food restaurant,” Gutierrez says.

That overlap of equity issues led writer and activist Robert Gottlieb to co-author the book Food Justice with Anupama Joshi, co- founder of the National Farm to School Network.

Gottlieb and Joshi urge food equity activists to consider a nexus of issues in their strategic thinking—not only food availability but labor standards, chemicals used in production, greenhouse gases, and land use. Joshi’s work, a national effort, connects local production with healthful food availability in schools.

“‘Food justice,’” Gottlieb says, “creates a direct link to a social justice perspective or a larger framework. Because if you’re trying to bring about change in the food system you have to think across the entire food system.”

CHC and allies are pursuing a number of community-based approaches to re-organizing L.A.’s food system, including more inner-city farmers markets and a strategy to bring more supermarkets into South L.A. They have fought to set limits on the number of fast-food restaurants in South L.A.

HiFi’s Ignacio has been organizing a vibrant food rehab effort in her neighborhood. The re-dos on local stores—transformed from corner markets with few options to stores with appealing healthful foods—are impressive.

Gottlieb concedes that Los Angeles faces daunting challenges. But L.A. is innovative, he says. There’s the work of CHC and the APIOPA on the ground. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council, created after many years of organizing, has established some of the most progressive acquisition standards in the country for four L.A. city departments and the L.A. Unified School District, which serves more than a half-million meals daily.

“The issues in Los Angeles are huge in terms of food justice problems,” Gottlieb says. “And the movements here are among the most exciting in the country.”

This post originally appeared on Capital & Main, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Finding Nutrition in Food Deserts." It is part of a month-long series exploring how economic inequality is transforming California, and what can be done to rebuild our vanishing middle class.