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Food politics in L.A.: Hungry for change
The business of government often has been conducted over a meal, but these days it's food itself that's on the public agenda: how to get more and better food to poor people, how to improve what children eat at school, how to encourage access to farmers' products and community gardens, how to combat obesity, and more.
"There has been a real reawakening about food in Los Angeles," says Eric Garcetti, L.A. City Council president, whose district includes the Hollywood Farmers Market. That's personal as well as political: As a child, Garcetti grew carrots in his family's community garden plot along the Ventura Freeway; these days, he and his wife grow most of their vegetables in their yard.
In a region of great abundance, demand is dramatically up at food pantries, and yet nearly two-thirds of the adults in L.A. County are overweight or obese -- a paradox that experts suggest is the result of such behaviors as eating too much food that's high in calories but low in nutritional value.
"I think we are just finally realizing that obesity and hunger are connected," says Andrea Giancoli, nutrition policy consultant for Los Angeles Unified School District. "Over the last decade, we're starting to gain more information about what is really happening out there in the community."
People are connecting a range of concerns about food -- safety, hunger, health and the environment, says Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action Los Angeles. And local politicians are taking notice too.
"There's a lot of attention" to food by city officials, says L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar. "But we need to do a better job at having a comprehensive approach to all of these issues."
Among the initiatives:
* The L.A. City Council has adopted a measure to make sure that leftover food from city facilities, including the Los Angeles Convention Center (which already donates some food), gets to food banks, "whether it's 20 sandwiches at a local park or on a larger scale," says Huizar, sponsor of the measure. The council is awaiting a report on how such a plan would work.
* L.A. County supervisors have taken steps aimed at getting residents who are eligible for food stamps signed up for them. It's estimated that only half of the county's eligible residents get food stamps, meaning that millions of dollars in federal benefits are going to waste.
* The City Council's moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in some parts of the city (an effort that some have questioned), intended to fight obesity and to encourage independent sit-down restaurants, runs through March. And starting next year, thousands of restaurants in California will be required to post calorie counts.
* The mayor has announced a food policy task force, which is cataloging public and private efforts in food production, consumption and distribution and considering whether the city needs a permanent food policy council. He chose to announce it at a City Hall celebration of the 30th anniversary of farmers markets in the county.
* The L.A. City Council is looking for ways to to help defray some of the costs for farmers market operators who have seen their reimbursement charges increase significantly for street closures, signs and other city expenses.
* Hundreds of vending machines in county facilities are to carry healthful food and drinks as their contracts expire -- baked chips, low-fat cookies and crackers -- under a motion adopted last year.
But the supervisors stopped short of deciding to develop a plan to prohibit sugar-sweetened beverages from all county facilities, including the Hollywood Bowl. (The L.A. Unified School District board was ahead of the curve, banning soda sales in 2004 and adopting a plan to improve cafeteria food, though some of its goals, including a salad bar in every school, have yet to be realized.)
* The state has limited the use of trans fats in restaurants, and there has been talk about whether to propose a tax on sodas. At a hearing in City Hall last year, some state legislators heard from advocates of such a tax and also from opponents, who argued for consumer choice and for encouraging people to get more exercise to combat obesity.
The rates and costs of obesity have made the nation more food-centered as well. The Obamas planted a garden on the White House lawn, and the first lady last week announced a campaign to take on childhood obesity. State and local governments around the country have taken up food-related legislation.
"Things have reached a tipping point," says Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor who cites a 41% increase in demand at food pantries since the end of 2008.
He was among the public officials who have asked for a better coordination of public agencies' efforts to fight hunger, based in part on two dozen recommendations issued by the Jewish Federation late last year, including getting people the services that are already available.
Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, says nearly 1 million county residents don't get the food stamps they are eligible to receive.
"It is absolutely criminal that we don't get these folks who are eligible what they are eligible for," Yaroslavsky says.
One way to overcome the language and cultural barriers to seeking food stamps, he says, is to send county workers out into the community, to food pantries and other places hungry people are likely to be. To that end, the county is working to get laptops, so workers can sign up people for food stamps wherever they are.
Some of what's required is better coordination, Yaroslavsky says. And the supervisors have asked county officials to look at how departments and nonprofit and faith-based agencies can more effectively work together.
Solutions to other problems have for years remained elusive. The scarcity of supermarkets in neighborhoods that are being called "food deserts" continues to trouble many people, within and outside of government. A report is due soon to the City Council assessing what it can do, through land use powers, to encourage supermarket construction. Council member Jan Perry's office supported Fresh & Easy's efforts; a new store opens next week in South L.A.
Availability of fresh, nutritious food is a long-standing issue. After the 1992 riots, researchers found that the availability of fresh, nutritious food was a top concern of people living in South Los Angeles, says Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and the author of a book coming out later this year on food and justice.
A few years later a food policy body was formed but dissolved. Now the idea is back.
"There has been a deepening and maturing and expansion of the food movement in Los Angeles," Gottlieb says.
People are coming to "realize how unhealthy a lot of our food is," Garcetti says, and they're doing something about it in ways that also provide urban meeting spots -- by working in community gardens and shopping at farmers markets.
At the same time, he says, there has been "a recognition by government that it's not going to happen on its own," that through permits and regulations for such disparate things as restaurant grease traps and new grocery stores, the "city has a huge impact on food."