Willie Jones examined the plump peaches nestled next to the ripe avocados and grapes at the farmers market in Compton.
“If you look at me, you can tell I need some healthy foods,” he said with a chuckle, his button-up shirt taut against his belly.
Doctors have told Jones that he should add more fruit and vegetables to his diet. But the 60-something councilman said it’s often hard to find fresh produce, particularly organic, in his neighborhood supermarket.
Compton residents say what little is available is rotten, unripe or flavorless. Some drive miles to grocery stores in other cities; others simply go without, omitting a vital part of a nutritious diet.
In March, the USDA formally acknowledged what residents have long known: Compton is a “food desert” with low access to healthful and affordable foods.
Last week, in a move to shed that reputation and combat obesity, Compton opened the Blue Line Farmers’ Market, the first in the city in more than a decade. Soulful tunes greeted hundreds of Metro riders as they stepped off the train and perused tables of plumcots, garlic and potatoes. Some vendors offered hip clothes and homemade soaps, giving the market the feel of an open-air bazaar.
“Food impacts performance and how you think — even success in school,” said Compton Mayor Aja Brown. “It also helps with depression. We’re trying to de-medicate our population” and ease chronic diet-related problems with more healthful food options.
City officials said the weekly Wednesday farmers market is just the first step. The City Council has added health and wellness as one of its “critical priorities” for the coming fiscal year, and in January, officials plan to launch a citywide fitness challenge with the aim of reducing body fat and cholesterol levels.
Compton, a city of about 100,000, consistently has some of the highest rates of diet-related disease in Los Angeles County. About 40% of its residents are obese. A third of them have hypertension and 13% have diabetes, according to the 2011 Los Angeles County Health Survey.
“What we see is a malnourished population,” said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of the Community Health Councils, which works to influence health policy in South L.A. “What we don’t have is healthy, fresh, crisp fruits and vegetables. In its place we see processed foods.”
Jones, the councilman, said he suffers from “all the health issues” a man his age might face, even though he tries to exercise regularly.
A 2009 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that neighborhoods with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have more healthful diets and lower levels of obesity.
A tour of Compton reveals a community with an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that sell spirits and snacks.
Although there are a few major chains, including Ralphs and Fresh & Easy, it’s an inadequate supply to meet USDA standards.
Other indicators, such as vehicle access and distance to supermarkets, are factored into the USDA’s food desert designation, said agency economist Michele Ver Ploeg. More than 15% of Compton residents live a mile or more from the nearest grocery store, according to the USDA.
If the quality of healthful food was measured, it would reveal an even more dire situation.
Oscar Perea, 19, works at a grocery chain near his Compton home and sees the condition of the food that comes in.
His colleagues comb through the fruit that sometimes arrives spoiled and covered with mold. The workers toss out the bruised and badly damaged food, Perea said, and put the best on the store floor. Still, customers complain, he said.
“What we do have doesn’t look as good as this,” he said, motioning to the grapes laid out on a vendor’s table at the farmers market.
The Los Angeles Film School student said he eats far less than the recommended two to four servings of fruit a day. His mother tries to search out other grocery stores, but Perea said it’s time-consuming.
After a stroll through the new farmers market, the mother-son duo left with a bag full of organic grapes and peaches from the agricultural town of Reedley and made plans to return on Wednesday.