Columnists Opinion

Uprooting South L.A.’s ‘food deserts’

Over the last few months, articles in the Los Angeles Times have sparked controversy over the effectiveness of the City Council’s 2008 fast food ordinance in reducing obesity rates in South LA. A May 10 article, “Fighting the Good Food Fight,” called the ordinance ineffective in reducing obesity rates in communities where such rates are dangerously high.

An earlier article, “Ban On Fast-Food Eateries in South L.A. Hasn’t Cut Obesity, Study Says,” referenced a then just-released Rand Corp. report indicating that obesity rates actually increased in South L.A. between 2007 and 2012. In that same article, Gwendolyn Flynn — policy director for nutrition resources at Community Health Councils — quoted Los Angeles County of Public Health data showing a slight decline in obesity rates from 2009 to 2013.

Either way you slice it, though, the obesity rate remains staggeringly high in South Los Angeles, probably because our problems extend far beyond fast food. In addition to being surrounded by fast food restaurants, we struggle with the shortage of two of the cornerstones of healthy eating: access to healthy food options and healthy cooking skills.

Many South L.A. residents live in what’s become known as “food deserts,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s term for low-income communities without reasonable access to fresh and healthy foods. In fact, with large scale grocers long gone from much of our community, more than a third of South L.A. residents live in food deserts devoid of fresh food options.

Meanwhile, such healthy food options are routinely available throughout most of the rest of L.A. County.

The 2013 Health Atlas for Los Angeles reported that about half of adult residents in South L.A. say it’s very or somewhat easy to access fresh produce, compared to 90 percent of L.A. County as a whole and 96 percent of West L.A.

As a result, South L.A. residents are literally starving for the convenient, fresh, healthy food options essential to routinely putting healthy, home-cooked meals on the table.

Is it any wonder that obesity is ravaging our communities? It’s literally easier for many residents to buy a carton of french fries than it is for them to access a russet potato.

Fortunately, there are movements underway that gnaw away at this dangerous gap. More farmers markets and community gardens are cropping up, providing fresh food options to area residents.  And some mom-and-pop stores are submitting to makeovers aimed at helping customers buy and consume healthier foods. These are all positive steps towards making healthy food a better possibility for the fresh-food disenfranchised.

As important as these efforts are, however, they must be recognized as supplements to — not replacements for — the full array of grocery options enjoyed by residents in other parts of the city.

South Los Angeles residents desperately need two things: 1) investment dollars dedicated to making healthy groceries routinely available, and 2) education on how to turn the corner on unhealthy cooking patterns, once and for all.

Without such a complete menu of shopping options and healthy-cooking education, the health of much of South L.A. remains dangerously and consistently at risk.

Carla F. Williams is a culinary wellness strategist and healthy cooking educator who is committed to providing healthy food options for residents throughout South L.A.