Jewish Journal

Food Deserts Exposed

Drive seeks to make markets bloom in poor areas

by Ryan Torok

Posted on May. 19, 2010 at 1:48 am

Sparse selections of produce at neighborhood bodegas are the closest source for some residents living in food deserts. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Sparse selections of produce at neighborhood bodegas are the closest source for some residents living in food deserts. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

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.

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.

Regional Director Eric Greene describes PJA’s efforts as “radical empathy.”  Photo by Corey Fischer/PJA

“Better public transportation policies alone is an anti-hunger methodology,” Bergen said.

At the center of the current food justice campaign is PJA, which appointed Elissa D. Barrett its executive director in 2009 and Eric Greene as its new Southern California regional director last March.

With its mission to connect Jewish learning with domestic social justice issues, the 10-year-old organization this year voted to make food justice its primary campaign for 2010.

“Food is central to the Jewish narrative,” Hromadka said, pointing to the centrality of food in Jewish holidays like Sukkot and Passover, and even Shabbat, signifying “the promise of freedom and redemption.”

PJA operates out of an unassuming office in the Westside Jewish Community Center, the same facility that hosts religious services by IKAR, as well as senior citizen classes and swim lessons for youngsters.

PJA has a staff of 14 divided between its Westside JCC office and a San Francisco office that opened in 2005. Its annual operating budget is slightly more than $1 million,  and PJA’s membership base now totals around 6,000, according to Barrett’s estimates.

Echoing the activist-charged “pray with your feet” dictum of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel during the civil rights era, PJA’s past efforts have included working on behalf of the city’s car wash and hotel workers, including an act of civil disobedience during a protest in 2006 that resulted in the arrest of several PJA members.

PJA has also worked to improve sweatshop conditions in the garment industry, while encouraging the purchase of sweatshop-free — “kosher clothing” — pointing out that it was once Jews who worked on the factory floors in the garment industry.

Prior to the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a former gang member-turned-activist, PJA fought against the death penalty in California.

According to Greene, PJA’s efforts can be described in two words:  “radical empathy.”

The Progressive Jewish Alliance got its start in 1999, when members of the Southern California Region of the American Jewish Congress, believing that organization had become too conservative, split off and founded the new organization.

“The entire L.A. board of the American Jewish Congress agreed to fold, and almost all of us, about 24, came to the initial meeting to form PJA,” board member Lowenthal said. “We lost a few along the way — but about 20 of us hung in. And it happened.”

“They were really kind of the greats of the local progressive Jewish community,” Barrett said. “The idea of Jews exerting their power and privilege in partnership with disenfranchised community partners is not entirely new. But the idea that we could do it and not apologize for calling ourselves progressive, I think that was a little bit of a novelty at the time.”

Daniel J. Sokatch, now chief executive officer of the New Israel Fund, was named the first executive director. He led PJA for eight years, transforming the start-up nonprofit with only 250 members to a statewide organization with national influence and approximately 4,000 members.

In 2008, Sokatch left PJA to lead the Jewish Community Foundation of San Francisco. Although he had been instrumental in shaping PJA, at the time of his departure, Sokatch underplayed his own influence, saying, “PJA is an incredibly strong and vibrant organization ... much bigger than one person.”

In February 2009, Barrett, an activist attorney, was named as PJA’s new executive director, and she took over daily operations of both the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices.

In a recent interview in the courtyard of the Westside JCC, Barrett pointed to PJA’s practice of accepting Jews of all denominations and welcoming all viewpoints on Israel.

“The thing that I really love about PJA is that there is no litmus test on Israel for me to be involved,” Barrett said. “For instance, right now, we have members that are in CODEPINK [a women’s action group promoting peace], that are in Jewish Voice for Peace, that are in Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Americans for Peace Now, J Street and AIPAC. We all manage to stay in community with each other because there’s this very important progressive value .... You can believe in God or be a complete atheist.”

Greene, too, spoke of connecting PJA’s advocacy work to the “daily and weekly liturgy that’s part of the yearly holiday cycle and textual tradition.

“Food is always connected to values in Jewish tradition,” Greene said. “The laws of kashrut sensitize us to the ethical impacts of our personal choices. Harvest festivals like Sukkot demonstrate gratitude and celebrate bounty. The Shabbat table brings us together in community.”

What’s more, “In Leviticus, we are instructed to leave the corners of the field for the poor, to let the land rest and rejuvenate itself — symbolic acts of balance and access,” Barrett said.

PJA Executive Director, Elissa Barrett Photo courtesy PJA

Both Barrett and Greene have legal backgrounds. Barrett initially joined PJA as a board member, in 2000.  She was the pro bono director at Bet Tzedek, an organization that offers free legal services to the needy, and she also launched its Holocaust Survivors Justice Network. Greene, who has a law degree, believes his work at PJA expresses a fusion of his “contemplative intellectual side” with his “real activist side.”

“I was really looking for some place to bring together both parts of my identity,” Barrett said. “My identity as a progressive, my identity as a Jew — and my identity as a feminist, as a fierce young female lawyer.”

Last March, PJA organized a bus tour to East L.A. neighborhoods to visit food deserts. On the tour were rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and American Jewish University, many of them members of PJA’s Jeremiah Fellowship, which teaches young adults how to become activists. They were part of the group that crossed the withering lawns of the Eastside Ramona Gardens housing projects.

MAZON contributed financial support for the bus tour, and members of Netiya, the L.A. Jewish Coalition on Food, Environment and Social Justice of Valley Beth Shalom, co-founded by Rabbi Noah Farkas, participated in the event.

It was the week before Passover, when Jews restrict their diets to remember slavery in Egypt. Olga Peres, a Ramona Gardens resident and LA Voice PICO organizer, told the group about the hardships of a life spent in a low-income neighborhood with limited access to healthy food.

“My kids are young, and they’re growing up eating unhealthy,” Peres said.

She explained that convenience stores in her neighborhood often sell expired food, moldy juices and lettuce that must be peeled and peeled to find edible parts.

“This is a crisis for those of us who live here, not to have access to good food,” Peres continued.

The nearest high-quality supermarket is a Ralphs about six miles away. Peres said her neighborhood has no supermarkets, sit-down restaurants or even smaller grocery stores, but plenty of fast-food restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores, which often charge more for the same items sold at supermarkets.

One can find supermarkets such as Superior, Food 4 Less and El Super in South Los Angeles, but Jose Gutierrez of CLUE LA, who has lived in the area for 35 years, criticizes the quality of their produce and the lack of organic choices, saying he would not buy food from them — “not unless I urgently need it.”

“I can’t speak for him, but that sounds like a personal choice,” Heylen of the California Grocers Association responded when told of the criticism.

Gutierrez said he drives 30 minutes to Glendale or Pasadena, where he can shop at Ralphs, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, planning his whole day around such trips, which he called an inconvenience.

Gutierrez wondered why stores like Trader Joe’s and Ralphs won’t open in his neighborhood. He acknowledged these stores sometimes have higher prices than Food 4 Less and Superior, but he believes they overcharge and could make a profit in his neighborhood and other lower-income neighborhoods by selling the high-quality food they are known for at lower prices.

Heylen said there is interest among grocers: “There is definitely renewed interest and renewed synergy moving forward in getting stores in these areas. The challenge isn’t that companies aren’t interested. The biggest concern is available land. Second is speeding up the whole approval process so they can get things built. We’re trying to speed up that process.”

A 2008 study by the nonprofit Social Compact examined grocery business opportunities in inner-city neighborhoods. The study found potential for supermarkets to profit in low-income food desert areas, pointing to inner-city neighborhoods where residents spend millions of dollars on groceries at stores outside of their communities — known as “grocery leakage.”

Residents in Vernon-Central, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, for example, reportedly “leak” an estimated $82 million annually.

Other options exist besides opening more supermarkets. The bus tour of East Los Angeles, which PJA helped organize, stopped at a community garden in Lincoln Heights. Community gardens can increase healthy food access in food insecure neighborhoods by allowing residents to grow their own vegetables.

Fresh & Easy opens stores in underserved areas, like this one in South Los Angeles. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

In this vein, as part of their multifaceted commitment to helping create alternative food sources, on Big Sunday weekend, May 1-2, PJA members worked as volunteers at an urban garden at 24th Street Elementary School near the historic West Adams neighborhood.

The one-acre garden provides a variety of greens and herbs, which the elementary school students sell to the larger community at a weekly farmers’ market. The Garden School Foundation, a coalition of citizens, businesses and community organizations, initiated the project in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The garden at 24th Street Elementary is a prototype site.

But while smaller and alternative sources for healthful food are worthwhile causes, a 2008 blue-ribbon commission on the city’s grocery industry emphasized the need for supermarkets. In addition to offering a greater supply of healthy food choices, supermarkets create middle-class jobs — thus becoming “engines of neighborhood economic development,” the report stated.

Amanda Shaffer, a research associate at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, a member of the commission and author of the 2002 report, “The Persistence of L.A.’s Grocery Gap,” reiterated the group’s message: “I think supermarkets are healthy to the community beyond healthy food access. They bring added value in terms of good jobs, other services and often a large supermarket is going to offer more variety than a smaller store.”

Representatives of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a subsidiary of British retail giant Tesco, which entered the U.S. market, including Southern California, in 2007, said they hope to become the premiere healthy market chain for underserved neighborhoods.

Last February, Fresh & Easy opened a store in South Los Angeles, part of a mixed-use and broader redevelopment project for the neighborhood. Councilwoman Jan Perry worked with the company to build new apartments in the same development with the store.

Fresh & Easy has fashioned its stores as smaller markets — approximately 18,000 square feet, comparable to an average-sized Trader Joe’s store. The average supermarket store size is approximately 47,000 square feet, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Fresh & Easy also strives to be more convenient than the larger supermarket chains, and it offers fresh, frozen and ready-made food at relatively reasonable prices.

However, Fresh & Easy has not yet opened enough stores in the areas that need them most, Shaffer said. “They’re a business; they can open stores wherever they want. But they marketed themselves as if that was one of their main goals” to serve the underserved.

The company insists it intends to, but says it takes time.

“We haven’t been doing this for decades,” said Brendan Wonnacott, a Fresh & Easy spokesman. “When you’re looking at developing in urban areas, finding locations can be more difficult” in terms of “site availability.”

Advocacy groups, City Council members, grocery store management and representatives agree that the goal is to open more markets — the question is how and when.

On June 13, Fed Up With Hunger will host a community-wide volunteer day, sending those who are interested in the cause to dozens of food pantry sites, as well as to an urban farm in South Los Angeles and various farmers markets throughout the city.

PJA’s Greene pointed out that Judaism demands this level of commitment to the issue.

“Our tradition tells us that we had to reside in the desert for 40 years after the Exodus on our way to the land of milk and honey. Angelenos have suffered in food deserts for over 40 years and deserve to live in a land of milk, produce and fresh groceries,” Greene said.

While conducting research for this story, the author participated in The Food Stamp Challenge.  Read about it here.

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While conducting research for this story, the author participated in The Food Stamp Challenge.
Read about it here