May 19, 2010
Food Deserts Exposed
Drive seeks to make markets bloom in poor areas
Armed with visitor badges, about 30 members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores ambushed City Hall a couple of weeks ago. The strategy on that day, May 4, was to make unannounced visits to the offices of all 15 City Council members to ensure that a proposed grocery reinvestment ordinance is on the radar of council members.
The issue that has come to be called “food justice” — advocacy aimed at making healthy food both economical and available to all — has become a major cause these days, and Jewish groups are among those deeply committed to the issue.
The interest now is, in part, related to the dip in the economy and the related drive to combat hunger. However, it is also part of a long-term fight to attract more supermarket chains, with their discounted prices, larger selection of food and middle-class job opportunities, into low-income neighborhoods. Advocates hope the grocery reinvestment bill will provide city oversight of the grocery industry and make supermarket management accountable to larger community interests.
The city attorney’s office is currently working on the legislation.
Check it out!While conducting research for this story, the author participated in The Food Stamp Challenge.
Read about it here.
The lack of grocery stores was a factor in the Watts Riots of the 1960s and the issue again came to the fore during the Rodney King riots in 1992. The groups advocating for change insist that the supermarket industry has for too long neglected opening stores in Los Angeles’ low-income communities, in particular South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley.
These areas have come to be called food deserts — neighborhoods where residents live at least half a mile away from a major supermarket and where the easiest sources for dinner are fast-food outlets, convenience chains and small, often-expensive and understocked corner stores.
A recent study by the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a coalition of faith-based organizations, including CLUE-LA, a clergy-run group, illustrates the negative health impact of local food deserts. Obesity and diabetes rates run higher in East Los Angeles neighborhoods — where an average of 3.6 grocery stores feed 100,000 residents — than in West Los Angeles neighborhoods, such as Century City, Westwood and West Fairfax, where nearly four times that number of stores offer considerably better quality fruits and vegetables as well as other healthy food options.
“There’s a structural problem,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE-LA. “We live in one city. But we live as if there are multiple cities. That’s what this grocery reinvestment ordinance is trying to address — that the grocery stores offer equal services.”
Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Association, a trade and lobbying group that represents approximately 80 percent of the grocers in California — both the big ones, like Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons (all of which are subsidiaries of larger national chains) and smaller ones, such as Superior Grocers — defends the industry. “There’s a misconception that these smaller chains aren’t going to have the same quality or product selection as a major chain, which just isn’t the case,” he said.
Following the 1992 riots, Rebuild L.A. (RLA), a nonprofit cooperative, led a citywide revitalization effort to bring major supermarket chains into the underserved areas. RLA encouraged privately owned, major grocery chains to invest in these communities.
A sprinkling of new stores opened, including in downtown Los Angeles, which was hard-hit by the riots. But the efforts quieted down, and large gaps remain.
At City Hall, Elliot Petty, an alliance member, stood in the hall outside the office of Councilman Eric Garcetti. Petty said the goal that day was to “remind City Council members what the issue is.”
Jonathan Matz, a PJA campaign organizer; Anne Hromadka, chair of the PJA’s food justice campaign, and Rita Lowenthal, 82, one of the founders of PJA, visited the offices of Council members Garcetti, Tom LaBonge, Bill Rosendahl and Janice Hahn, where they spoke with staff members.
Matz said the grocery ordinance will probably reach the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee in the coming weeks and be presented for a vote to City Council in the fall. For the ordinance to pass the initial voting period, 10 council members must support it.
Councilman Ed P. Reyes, Matz said, has been “the driving force” behind the legislation, overseeing the ordinance.
“I’m confident that we will get the 10,” Petty said, noting it would be a “great step forward” in addressing the grocery gap crisis and a “success for the coalition.”
Many locally based Jewish organizations have long, and with great consistency, focused on relieving hunger, or food insecurity, as it has come to be called — notably MAZON, a national nonprofit founded in 1985 and devoted entirely to “preventing and alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with its current Fed Up With Hunger initiative, has assembled a coalition of groups to focus on the issue. Jewish Family Service has three SOVA food pantries in Los Angeles currently providing free groceries to approximately 10,000 individuals a month, according to the estimates of Fred Summers, director of operations at SOVA.
Demonstrating a commitment to providing healthy foods, fresh produce makes up 25 percent of the packages given to each SOVA client, a figure that has doubled since 2006, Summers said. “There’s so much appreciation,” he continued. “This is something that [our clients’] budgets don’t allow them to afford.”
Under the guidance of Andrew Cushnir, associate executive vice president and chief program officer at The Federation, Fed Up With Hunger developed a “blueprint to end hunger in Los Angeles,” a comprehensive agenda for social action that calls for “new market developments in food deserts.”
Cushnir said The Federation continues to work behind the scenes in addressing food deserts, one of the “core issues” involved with ending hunger.
If supermarkets refuse to open in low-income areas, Barbara H. Bergen, acting president of MAZON, believes that bus pass subsidies should be made available to make it easier and more affordable for residents of food deserts to reach the larger supermarkets outside their neighborhoods.
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