Farm fresh in South L.A.

Pompea Smith is executive director of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles.

In huge swaths of Los Angeles, it’s generally easier to get a bag of Hot Cheetos than a head of lettuce.

That’s just one of the unsettling findings published recently by the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. It studied food availability in three neighborhoods -- Pico-Union, Westlake/MacArthur Park and part of South Los Angeles. In these dense urban areas, home to about 420,000 Angelenos, there were only 15 full-service grocery stores.

Supermarkets are one of the few reliable providers of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are crucial to a healthy life. Yet South Los Angeles has one supermarket for every 28,000 residents. By comparison, Los Angeles County as a whole has a supermarket for every 18,000 residents.


So where are people getting their food? In the vast stretch between the 10 and 105 freeways, the majority of food outlets are liquor shops, convenience stores or fast-food chains. Another assessment of food availability, this one in 2004 by the nonprofit Community Services Unlimited, captured a grim snapshot: In a 1.5-square-mile segment of South Los Angeles, there were eight restaurants, 50 fast-food outlets and 39 liquor stores. The four grocery stores were clumped together, beyond walking distance of much of the survey area.

Even if you do find healthy food staples -- low-fat milk or apples, for instance -- at convenience stores, the Occidental report says they will likely cost noticeably more than at supermarkets. That’s another healthy-food hurdle in regions where household income is about 40% of the citywide average.

This is a situation that’s not just unhealthy but, as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“Supersize Me”) and author Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) made clear, downright hazardous. No wonder South Los Angeles -- which is predominantly Latino and African American -- teeters on a health precipice. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 24% of Latinos and 20% of African American kids ages 6 to 11 are overweight. African American men have a nearly 30% higher death rate from heart disease than any other ethnic group. Both Latinos and African Americans suffer from diabetes at a rate more than 50% higher than whites. South L.A.’s food environment abets these diseases the same way chemical-laced dumps spawn cancer and smog-choked cities aggravate asthma.

The Occidental report called for more supermarkets and farmers markets in our poorest neighborhoods. Since they began burgeoning in Southern California about a decade ago, farmers markets have been primarily associated with more affluent areas -- Montrose, Pasadena, Santa Monica. But farmers markets need to move beyond that narrow image and expand their mission to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the communities that desperately need them. Farmers markets can accept food stamp/EBT debit cards -- something my nonprofit Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (which operates the Hollywood farmers market) worked hard to achieve.

Last Saturday, SEE-LA opened its third weekly farmers market in South Los Angeles at Ted Watkins County Park in Watts. About 200 people attended the first market, spending nearly $2,000 among a dozen vendors -- some who traveled from as far as Fresno. Customers bought fruits and vegetables, juice and flowers, artisanal soaps and bath salts. Some also watched cooking demonstrations and took advantage of health screenings.

With good word-of-mouth, attendance will grow, but getting the necessary commitments to open this farmers market took some effort. It took nearly four years of collaboration with community health organizations -- including Kaiser Permanente’s Watts Counseling and Learning Center, Children’s Hospital, USC’s Keck School of Medicine and the county Public Health Department -- to muster all the support we needed.


A farmers market in Watts is a good first response to the hard facts of the Occidental report, but it is only available for a few hours one day a week. British food retailer Tesco plans a market at Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue, which will also help bring critical food staples to the community. However, these are only tiny steps toward what must be a comprehensive solution to the nutritional and health shortfalls bedeviling South Los Angeles and other portions of Los Angeles County.

The residents not only need better food but improvements in health education and healthcare delivery. Hopefully, this incremental exposure to healthier food will increase the community’s expectations -- and demands -- for the same nutritional opportunities available in the rest of Los Angeles.

We’ve planted a seed in Watts. Let’s hope it grows.