Jewish groups work to fight ‘food deserts’

Why is this day unlike any other day?

As Jews worldwide prepare to celebrate next week their liberation from slavery, a group of Los Angeles Jews went to Boyle Heights on Sunday to ask that variation of their traditional Passover Seder question.

The answer, however, did not recount Jewish oppression in Egypt as is customary. Activists from major Jewish organizations instead focused on what they see as a modern injustice afflicting their fellow Angelenos, marking the day with a new push to bring quality grocery markets and healthful food to underserved neighborhoods such as East Los Angeles.

“We want to transform the food deserts of Los Angeles into a promised land of access to healthy food,” said Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which helped organize a tour Sunday to showcase the problem. “Food, liberation and sustenance are closely intertwined in Judaism.”

Jewish community groups aim to broaden the growing local and national campaigns to attract more supermarkets to poor neighborhoods, where limited access to healthful food has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other diseases. Programs are sprouting up in Louisiana, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The issue has also landed on the agenda of First Lady Michelle Obama, who announced a goal to eliminate food deserts within seven years as part of her initiative against childhood obesity. The Obama administration has proposed $400 million in financing to lure grocery stores to underserved areas.

In Los Angeles, the Community Redevelopment Agency received $240,000 in federal stimulus money to help six convenience stores transform themselves into more attractive sites offering healthier foods. The agency has developed an incentive package for grocers, restaurants and produce marts to invest in South Los Angeles, said Jenna Gulager, an assistant project manager.

And Los Angeles Councilman Ed Reyes has asked the city to draft an ordinance that would offer investment incentives to grocers citywide.

“There’s a huge conversation around the country about what can be done,” said Elliott Petty of the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a coalition of more than 30 community, faith, labor and environmental groups.

The alliance, which took the lead in organizing the tour, convened a blue ribbon commission to hold hearings and issue a report in 2008 on how food deserts affect poverty and public health.

The groups are pressing Reyes to include not only carrots but also sticks in his proposed ordinance, urging him to use the city’s permitting powers to challenge grocers who locate in well-heeled neighborhoods but not poor ones.

But grocers say it is not always easy to operate in inner-city neighborhoods. One major challenge is finding lots large enough to accommodate full-service supermarkets, said Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Assn., which represents 80% of the state’s markets. Other barriers, he said, include regulatory red tape that can cause delays and increase operating costs.

But Heylen said grocers, particularly independent ones, are showing more interest in urban areas in part because of all the new incentives.

Among Jews, interest in the food desert issue is also percolating. Representatives from several synagogues and organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, attended the tour.

Michelle Paster, a 30-year-old teacher, filmmaker and member of the Ikar congregation, said she came with questions about what role Jews could play in helping the largely Latino community bring better markets to their neighborhoods. Growing up in Encino with the privileges of private schools and every possible material comfort, she said, had kept her insulated from the struggles of Angelenos across town.

And Ilana Schachter, 26, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the food desert issue was a natural one for Jews, whose traditions are rooted in social justice and religious rituals nearly always involving food -- challah on Sabbath, latkes on Hanukkah, apples and honey on Rosh Hashana, matzo and bitter herbs on Passover.

Passover in particular, she said, calls Jews not only to recount their own oppression in Egypt but also to connect it to modern-day struggles against injustice.

Organizers had to rent a second bus to accommodate demand for the tour, which began at the historic Breed Street Shul. Community members gathered to begin pondering the Passover questions. The traditional four questions about the Passover rituals were replaced by questions about why Angelenos who live in food deserts purchase so much unhealthful food and have difficulty finding good markets paying decent wages.

The tour featured testimony from students at Lincoln High School, residents of the Ramona Gardens housing project and an Asian American community activist helping to launch a community garden. Ivonne Nieto, a Lincoln High student and vegetarian, said it is nearly impossible to find a variety of soy-based products in the local market, where she said food is more expensive and of lower quality than the larger supermarkets in her old neighborhood, Echo Park.

“How are we supposed to achieve healthy minds without healthy bodies?” asked Angelica Reyes, another student.