Zumba boom in South LA’s concrete desert

A new crop of Zumba studios have taken root in South LA,

helping people lose weight and transform their lives.

Students get some air time while jumping in a Zumba class. | Daina Beth Solomon

Students get some air time while jumping in a Zumba class. | Daina Beth Solomon

This article was recently featured in the Huffington Post’s “What’s Working” campaign. It originally appeared on Intersections on October 30, 2014.

“She used to be fat!” a woman said after Patricia Campos’ class on a recent weekday morning, nudging her elbow at a fellow student.

“No, I used to be fat!” a friend chimed in.

“I was fat, too!” added another.

Just minutes prior, the trio of 30-somethings were among 20 women clad in black leggings and neon hued tops twisting side to side as a Dominican cumbia song blasted from the stereo.

“Get movin’!” commanded Campos in Spanish, pointing to one women’s waist with a mock serious expression of indignation.

Patricia Campos

Patricia Campos tells her students: “Forget about your kids, about your husband, forget about your work. Give yourself up. This hour is yours, enjoy it.” | Daina Beth Solomon

Campos herself bounced with energy, demonstrating each routine without resting between numbers. She paused only to snag a paper towel with her foot and wipe it across the floor to soak up flying beads of sweat.

Nearly 40 Zumba studios have cropped up in the 50-square-mile region of South L.A. over the past few years, offering homegrown exercise facilities in an area that had long lacked affordable options. In an area of Los Angeles where the population faces a surfeit of obesity, the classes may be one way Angelenos in South L.A. can work toward shrinking their waistlines. [Read more…]

Despite odds, a boost in heart health for South LA

By Belinda Cai, Diana Crandall, Bentley Curtis, Taylor Haney, Daniel Jimenez, Kevin Mallory, Ken Mashinchi, Jonathan Tolliver and Yingzhi Yang

Zumba class at the Baldwin Hills Mall. | Daniel Jimenez

Zumba class at the Baldwin Hills Mall. | Daniel Jimenez

The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw community is changing shape.

The South L.A. neighborhood has received various grants within the past several years to start programs aimed at reducing its relatively high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity while improving access to nutrition and basic health services.

For many people, these efforts have worked. Take Debra Finley, who signed up for free Zumba classes through the BFit program at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

“I was 195 pounds,” said Finley. “Now I’m 145.”

It is still unclear whether overall health outcomes are improving in the area. Many of these programs are less than a decade old, and are being pushed into neighborhoods that remain swamped with fast food restaurants and liquor stores. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 8 percent of area food retailers in the area are considered healthy.

Yet, many positive trends are emerging. [Read more…]

Obesity concerns still rank high in South LA

By Daniella Segura

Moving to South Los Angeles from her home of 18 years in Los Feliz, Marie-Alise de Marco expected many changes, but the lack of healthy food options in her new community was not one of them.

De Marco, 50, a manager at the Crenshaw Farmer’s Market, said she has always been health conscious, making sure what she makes for her husband and two boys are healthy. She tries to buy organic foods to prepare for her family and avoids other foods infused with pesticides and hormones. image

De Marco recalled how she went to a Ralph’s market in South L.A. to buy groceries for her family, soon after moving to the area in the fall of 2009. There was no organic milk or blue cheese that she wanted.

“It was just mind boggling that there was no choice,” she said. “There was nothing healthy, nothing organic…if you would have taken the name Ralph’s off that store, I wouldn’t have known I was at a Ralph’s.”

De Marco isn’t the only one affected by the lack of healthy options in South L.A. The region has long suffered from a lack of diversity in dining options.

About 70 percent of the restaurants in South L.A. are fast food restaurants, far higher than areas such as West L.A., where the figure is about 40 percent, according to the Community Health Councils, a non-profit, community-based health education and policy organization.

Paul Simon, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, said the abundance of fast food restaurants contributes to the high obesity rates in South L.A.

In 2011, about 33 percent of adults in South L.A. were obese, which is an estimated 12 percentage points higher than Los Angeles County’s overall rate, according to reports by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“We think [the obesity rate] reflects the types of foods that are available in that community,” Simon said. “It’s a very low income area of the county, and it seems to be filled with foods that are prone to making people overweight.”

City officials have recently taken measures to address the problem; passing a fast food moratorium that restricts the building of stand-alone fast food restaurants in South L.A.

Since the start of the ban in 2007, obesity rates among adults in South L.A. have fallen by about 3 percentage points, according to reports by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The decrease marked the largest fall in obesity for any area in L.A. County since 2007. Yet up until 2011, South L.A. had the highest obesity rates for L.A. County.

Antelope Valley is now marked with the unwelcome distinction as the county’s most obese area, according to a report by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Breanna Morrison, a health policy analyst at Community Health Councils, said a number of factors helped prompt the decrease in obesity, including the fast food ban.

“Part of the idea behind the fast food regulation was to not concede to allow McDonald’s and these other restaurants to monopolize the very little undeveloped land that we have left in South L.A.,” Morrison said. “Instead, let’s preserve it for the development of healthier alternatives.”

Since 2007, there have been six new grocery stores erected in South L.A., Morrison said. Among the newly built grocery stores are a Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market on Adams Boulevard and a Farm Fresh Ranch Market on Vermont Avenue.

She also said that from 2007 to 2009, the percentage of adults who consumed fast food in South L.A. four to five times per week fell about two percentage points, according to surveys done by the Community Health Councils and L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Morrison said the fast food ban was a good first step toward making South L.A. a healthier community, but she says more needs to be done, including building more parks and other recreation areas, which directly deal with the problem of obesity.

“What the policy has done is shown that the community is concerned about health,” Morrison said. “The community is the one that will drive the change to make South L.A. a healthier place. It’s all about them.”

Opinion: Fat People Don’t Need Government Sponsored Counseling

By Jasmyne A. Cannick

The federal government’s idea to “counsel” obese people on their eating habits is as backwards as the government’s war on drugs championing the D.A.R.E. program after the CIA supported the trafficking of cocaine into the U.S. to help finance the purchase of guns for the Contras.

The announcement that a federal health advisory panel recommended that all obese adults receive “intensive counseling” in an effort to rein in a growing health crisis in America is to me just another sign of our government’s “hero complex” and leads me to believe that maybe they are the ones in need of the counseling.

As someone who falls into America’s clinical definition of being obese, let me be the first to say that intensive counseling is not to going to tip the scales one weigh or another for me. Besides, if I wanted to be counseled on my eating habits, all I have to do is turn on my television to [insert the name of network here] and watch the latest craze in celebrity TV doctors.

America’s obesity epidemic wasn’t created overnight. It was methodically planned out and designed by the same people who are now overly obsessed with how much I weigh—but not necessarily what I eat and where I can exercise.

The same institution that wants to send people like me to “intensive counseling” co-signed the land use permits that paved the way for theproliferation of fast food restaurants we see today. It’s also the same institution that would rather see a 24-hour gym erected where taxes can be collected than design apark using taxpayer dollars where residents can exercise for free.

And what about the cost of food? Everybody who eats fast food doesn’t enjoy it. But when you can feed a family of 4 on a 10-piece bucket of chicken (with biscuits) for $5 verses spending $20 or more at the grocery store to buy the same ingredients to make the same meal—what are you going to do? The unemployed and those living on a tight budget will tell you that dollar menus start to look pretty good when you’re broke and hungry.

Even though I can appreciate the First Lady’s White House Kitchen Garden—a lot of the same obese people she’s targeting with her Healthy Food Initiative and Let’s Move program, don’t have a yard—let alone a garden to grow vegetables for their children to eat. I like a good farmer’s market as much as the next person, but urban communities plagued with obese children and adults still need a grocery store that offers more than lettuce, corn, apples, bananas, and oranges. A variety of fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables should be available all and not just the wealthier and healthier communities.

But alas, the plot thickens because almost seemingly in cahoots with the government and the fast food industry is Big Pharma. Thanks in part to Big Pharma, I ended up with a RiteAid, CVS Pharmacy, and Walgreens all in one block and I guess that wasn’t enough because now Kaiser is moving in.

So after I guzzle down my hamburger, french fries, 32-ounce soda, with a side of diabetes and stroke, I can just drive next door to the pharmacy and get my insulin prescription refilled, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart medicines. How convenient.

Obesity is big business. The more we eat, the fatter we are. The fatter we are, the sicker we are. The sicker we are, the more drugs we need and on and on.

At the end of the day, everyone cops a profit—right down to the clothing designers and manufacturers who are trying to keep up with ourdesire to fashionable and trendsetters coupled with our ever-expanding waistlines.

If the government really wants to put a dent in America’s fat problem, why don’t they commission a national study on the impact of price reductions on fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods in urban neighborhoods where obesity is an issue? What about the development of a taypayer-funded program targeting the clinically obese with free memberships to their local gym? Then the government could report back on whether or not access to cheaper healthier food and a gym free of charge resulted in better eating habits and living choices.

Offering or even mandating counseling as hope or a solution for the millions of obese people in America is just another one of those sound bites that sound good but means nothing. Eat on that.

Author Jasmyne Cannick

Jasmyne A. Cannick is a political communications strategist after having worked in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the California State Legislature. She is also a radio and television politics, race, and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @jasmyne and on Facebook at /jasmyne.

Does your neighborhood determine the quality of your produce?

By Meryl Hawk

imageSouth LA resident Donna Washington is one of many disappointed by the lack of quality produce available in her community.

Donna Washington stepped through the sliding doors of a Ralphs supermarket in Inglewood and strode over to the produce section. She looked down with dismay onto a table filled with dozens of strawberries. Flies hovered over the fruit. She picked up a carton and squinted her eyes. Her nose curled.

“These are so bruised they aren’t even red anymore,” she says. “I can’t feed this to my family.”

Washington headed over to a bin of green beans. She picked one up and broke it in half.

“It’s slimy inside,” she says. “It has brown streaks on it too.”

“I feel like I get someone’s leftover produce,” she says. Often, “the produce looks spoiled or like someone dropped it on the ground a few times.”

Washington and many others complain that South L.A. and other nearby communities are shortchanged when it comes to fresh produce. Studies show there are fewer grocery stores and healthy food options, such as low sugar cereal and fat free salad dressing, in poorer areas of the county.

A 2008 study by the Community Health Council, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found there was a grocery store for every 6,000 residents in South and East L.A. compared to one for every 3,800 residents in West L.A. – a 58% difference. The council also found that stores in poorer areas offered fewer healthy choices, like low fat snacks and lean meats.

The Community Health Council’s report states “obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are areas of serious concern” and “these dangerous health trends” could be reversed by “well-crafted food policies.”

The need for better food is critical in poor areas, which often have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Beryl Jackson, 43, who lives in South L.A. but works in Westwood, says she has seen an obvious difference in quality between the produce she can find in her neighborhood and those in grocery stores near her work.

“Residents from areas like South L.A. have to go to the stores in nicer neighborhoods to get fruit that isn’t bruised,” she says. “In the store next to my home they peel the brown leaves off of the lettuce to keep it looking fresh.”

Jessie Barber, 79, agrees that more affluent neighborhoods have higher quality stores than South L.A.

“I think we get whatever is on closeout,” she says. “Some of my friends go to the stores in West L.A. because they have better quality and variety. They don’t even shop in the area.”

Despite such sentiments, grocery store representatives insist that claims of inequality in food available in poorer communities are overblown.

imageProduce from a high-quality Ralphs.

Dave Heylen, the Vice President of Communications at the California Grocers Association, an organization that represents grocery suppliers and employees, insists that residents in underserved communities do have access to healthy food.

“There are farmer’s markets in almost every neighborhood in Los Angeles at some point during the week,” he says. “There is not a lack of access to healthy food in low-income areas.”

Gemma Gallegos, a sales manager at a Ralphs in Downtown L.A., says people in lower-income neighborhoods “probably don’t buy healthier options because they are pricier and don’t taste as good as other foods.”

“There is more of a concern about how far a dollar will stretch than health in those areas,” she says.

David Sanchez, a front-end supervisor at a Vons in Hollywood, says some stores are mindful of the surrounding communities’ health.

“Every Friday we offer meal deals, which consists of a piece of bread, chicken and two sides for $9.99,” he says. “Everyone likes them. It’s a healthy alternative to fast food.”

The Café at the Hollywood Vons offers sides like potato wedges and clam chowder. The bread is white and there are no vegetable or fruit sides.

Wendy Jackson, a general manager at Washington’s local Ralphs, says the number of food choices offered at a grocery store, is based on what people in the community buy most often.

“Some Ralphs have diabetic and gluten-free options,” she says. “We don’t because of where we’re located.

Jackson said Inglewood residents do not purchase gluten-free and diabetic items because they have less money to spend on specialty foods.

A spokesman for Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and other grocery stores, refused to comment on why low-income areas have fewer stores and healthy choices.

LaVonna Lewis, a health policy expert at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, says the California Grocers Association has made commitments to transform some markets in underserved communities and bring in more fruits and vegetables.

She also notes that the city in 2008 adopted a moratorium on fast food.

However, Lewis says the measures are not enough to improve the amount of healthy offerings because grocery store chains do not have incentives to build more stores in low-income communities. “The vendors are saying, ‘since people from the lower-income areas come to our stores in the higher-income areas, then why should we build in their communities?’”

The Community Health Council has recommended several steps to bring in more grocery stores: give landowners incentives to use their property to build grocery stores; strengthen the city’s ability to attract more chain markets with a strong marketing strategy; and educate policy makers and stakeholders on the link between public health and the types of food available in a community.

For Washington, the type of food she eats determines whether or not she can control her diabetes and lower her cholesterol. Washington, 52, a county welfare worker, lives with a husband recovering from lymphoma, a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. She is also taking care of her 78-year-old mother, who has dementia and blood clots in her legs.

“The stores next to my house don’t have fresh produce,” Washington complains. “They don’t have variety either.”

Washington’s local Ralphs had about a third of the diabetic options available at the Ralphs in Beverly Hills. Her store only carried sugar free jelly. The Beverly Hills location sold low sugar cookies, cereal and jelly, and had gluten-free options. Washington’s store did not.

Washington likes to juice vegetables for the family. “I’m trying to change the way we eat,” she says.

“It upsets me when I can’t buy fruit because it’s rotting,” Washington says. “What really gets me is the romaine lettuce. Almost every time I try to buy some, it’s brown and wilted.”

On a recent evening, Washington went to a Ralphs in Beverly Hills to see if the produce was any better than her local store’s.

She picked up a container of ruby red tomatoes and held them up to her nose. Her eyes closed and a smile spread across her face. Then she picked up a bundle of romaine lettuce and studied it as she held it in her hands.

The produce section at the Ralphs in Beverly Hills, she says, “smelled like a garden.”

Between the prices of apples, bananas and pineapple, apples are the only item that cost more at the Beverly Hills Ralphs.

“The lettuce is crisp and bright green and the tomatoes aren’t rotting! Everything is so fresh here,” Washington says. “How come my produce section doesn’t look like this?

Creating healthy neighborhoods

imageBy Eddie North-Hager

This is the second part of a series called Healthy ‘Hoods, which examines the notion of environmental injustice in South Los Angeles.

Hiking along some of the seven miles of trails in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the middle of the city. And with four more parks comprising nearly 60 acres right across the street, it’s easy to think that South Los Angeles is filled with parks just like this one.

But this rich concentration of green space in the far northwest corner of South L.A. belies the fact that the rest of this area is so park poor.

How did western L.A. County end up having 59 acres of park space per 1,000 people and South L.A. end up with 1.2 acres per 1,000 people?

According to the report in “Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis,” the evidence adds up to a conclusion that environmental injustice was no accident.

Past discrimination in housing, past discrimination in employment, ongoing placement of facilities that pollute, and the inequity in locations for urban services add up to the reality that the poor and communities of color are likely to be relegated to park-poor neighborhoods, reports the study’s author, Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

“[W]ealthier districts are more likely to boast plentiful parks and greenbelts provided by public funding,” the report finds.

Some of the problems we are facing today have their roots in laws created in 1904, according to the report. It was the first ordinance to regulate where business and residences could locate.

The zoning code “protected the affluent, predominantly Anglo Westside from industrial uses and high density housing,” finds Wolch, who was then the director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.

Industry and high-density housing were allowed to locate, instead, right by the city’s eastern and southern areas, where the working class called home. Parks and other urban amenities were located in other parts of town. As parks increase a home’s value, this inequality translates into a larger gap between the rich and poor, the report finds.

Los Angeles wasn’t alone. In 1912, the city of Torrance developed a well-thought-out plan to house the city’s workers, mainly Latinos, downwind of the city’s industrial plants and their pollutants, Wolch reports.

In addition to school segregation through the 1940s and racially restrictive housing covenants through the 1950s, parks were also historically segregated in Los Angeles.

Blacks could only swim in the public pool on International Day, the day before the pool was cleaned and the water drained, according to “Healthy Parks, Schools, and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity” by Robert García and Aubrey White of City Project.

Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was one of the few beaches blacks could enjoy in the 1920s. By the ‘30s, city officials forced them out, leaving only one other place for blacks to enjoy the ocean — the Inkwell at Pico Boulevard — according to the City Project report.

“The struggle to maximize public access to public lands while ensuring the fair treatment of people of all colors, cultures, and incomes can transform the Los Angeles region into a more livable, democratic, and just community, and provides a replicable advocacy model for community redevelopment,” García and Aubrey report.

With such a history, how can a neighborhood — especially one so dense and so park poor as South Los Angeles — become a healthy neighborhood that encourages physical activity?

Build parks near homes. Keep sidewalks safe. Create bike lanes. These attributes lead to “walkable communities” because they encourage people to walk more, according to the study, “Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments.”

“Applying public health criteria to land-use and urban design decisions could substantially improve the health and quality of life of the American people,” according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Walking a little more or having a park nearby could help shed just a few pounds. A few makes an impact — losing seven pounds helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes in high-risk patients by 60 percent, and diabetes is linked to obesity.

“If you make some changes, you can feel safe walking to the corner store or the mall,” says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst with the Community Health Councils in South L.A. “If you have a bike lane and bike parking, kids and adults will be more likely to use them.”

In the same way, shade trees, crosswalks, street furniture and other types of infrastructure can encourage people to walk. People are more likely to ride bicycles when there are bike racks to park their bike and bike lanes that are clearly marked.

The Children’s Nature Institute is attempting to deal with South L.A.’s urban legacy by enticing kids to go outside and enjoy the local flora and fauna.

“You have to get a lot out the space you have,” says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children’s Nature Institute in South L.A. “There are barriers that keep people from the pristine spaces. So how do you still continue to experience nature and access those benefits? With us, we are going to walk right outside of the door.”

Institute staff take children on hikes right on the city streets and inspect ant hills, spider webs and bean pods. They take what they can get and use it as a science lesson and a moment of wonder.

It seems intuitive that green space would be a healthful benefit. Still, it’s easy to underestimate how much of a difference it can make on your mind and body.

“There are demonstrable benefits to having open space as well as experiencing different species of birds and animals, even when people are not trained to know what they are looking at,” says Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildands Group and an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

“Every study says yes it matters. People internalize elements of their environment,” Longcore says.

But how much of an effect can it be?

People in an office with plants score better on repetitive task and memory recall, Longcore says.

Physical activity relieves depression and anxiety, which also correlate to high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Outdoor play is critical to a child’s cognitive development
Views of nature are linked to the mitigation of attention deficit disorder.

“Studies show that when going outside for exercise, it is better for your psychological health and well being, as well as helping prevent obesity and diabetes,” Rhone-Collins says.

In the third part of the series, we’ll look at a hiking path and green space in the South L.A. community of Leimert Park that was saved from being developed into apartments and hillside homes.

This story originally appeared on KCET.org

Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.

Obesity epidemic hits South L.A. harder than most

imageBy Eddie North-Hager

“Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.”

That quote should read like a public health bombshell, yet it’s not even news anymore. It was the opening line of a study published in “Science” magazine back in 1998. The authors, James O. Hill of the University of Colorado and J.C. Peters of Procter and Gamble, Co., were among the first to identify this American public health disaster. But, if anything, the problem has gotten worse.

From 1980 to 2004, the percentage of young people who were obese tripled nationwide, rising to 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Here in Los Angeles County, officials report more than half the adult population is now overweight.

And while obesity is a problem for Americans in all walks of life, it’s worse when you don’t live near a park, when access to public transportation is limited, when sidewalks are broken and streetlights are few.

“We have to recognize that where we live affects our health,” says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst for Community Health Council, a group that aims to eliminate health disparities in South Los Angeles.

Crump studies the relationship between the built environment and personal health.

“If you live with limited access to parks and recreation, to high quality food, it is reflected in your health status,” Crump says.

In fact, a National Institutes of Health study found that just living in a socioeconomically deprived area leads to weight gain and a greater risk of dying at an early age.

As a homegrown example, people in Culver City live an average of eight years longer than people in Jefferson Park, according to Crump. Yet these two communities in the middle of Los Angeles are only a couple of miles apart.

“There are a whole lot of reasons why, but the bottom line is that the disparity is huge,” Crump says. “Look at the big picture and it’s a stark reality.”

The neighborhoods of South Los Angeles suffer more than most:

– Thirty-three percent of children there are overweight.
– One in seven residents has diabetes, compared to one in 12 in West L.A.
– Forty-two percent of South L.A. residents live below the federal poverty level, compared to only 12 percent in West L.A., and the numbers correspond with the rate of diabetes in each area.

South Los Angeles — nearly 100 square miles and a million people — also happens to be the most park poor area of Los Angeles, with about 1.2 acres of park space per 1,000 people. The national standard is 6 acres for every 1,000 residents. Western Los Angeles county has 59 acres of parks per 1,000 residents.

But South L.A. is not alone in terms of limited park space. Nearly two-thirds of the children in Los Angeles County — mostly the children of the poor — have no park or playground near their home, according to the City Project, which promotes increased parks and recreation for underserved communities.

“When you have less access to parks and the streets are unfriendly for walking and biking, there is less physical activity among kids and adults alike,” Crump says.

There have been some positive changes, though. Dania Bautista is trying to shed a few pounds, and the city has made it a little bit easier for her. The 29-year-old works up a sweat at Van Ness Park in South L.A. on the outdoor elliptical machine, one of several pieces of workout equipment installed throughout the park.

She comes to the park to watch her friends play soccer. Instead of being just a spectator, she takes the opportunity to get in a workout.

“I do this for my health — I’m fat and I need to lose weight and it’s not pretty,” said Bautista, who operates a tamale cart. “Before, I didn’t work out at all.”

Even modest weight loss (only 7 pounds) has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent. That’s 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. It’s going to the park or riding your bike to the market.

Ultimately, the health of a neighborhood can be measured by the levels of obesity and chronic disease, cardiovascular health, and exposure to pollution and cancer causing agents.

The stakes are high and involve more than just individual health. Obesity greatly increases the risk of developing many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, lung disease, asthma, cancer and depression.

Medical care associated with such illnesses costs California tens of billions of dollars — care for diabetes alone cost Los Angeles County $5.6 billion in 2005.

As Hill and Peters wrote in 1998, “To stop and ultimately reverse the obesity epidemic, we must ‘cure’ this environment.”

So how do you cure the environment? How do you create healthier neighborhoods? In the second part of this series, “Healthy ‘Hoods,” we’ll look at the ingredients needed.

This story originally appeared on KCET.org

Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.

Fast food ban changes food landscape in South L.A.

Ronald McDonald and his fast food friends are no longer welcome in South Los Angeles. Instead, the Los Angeles City Council is pushing the establishment of more farmers’ markets and locally-owned businesses.

Intersections South LA’s Kate Rooney explains why fast food restaurants can no longer be built in the neighborhood.

Lack of fresh food and grocery stores concerns many in South Los Angeles

Food is an important aspect of our individual and social lives. It is the fabric of our existence. As James Beard, a chef and food writer, once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

It is also a big business.

As food trucks spread from one city to another, they are another example of new forms of food access. Our culture’s obsession with food has also expanded to food blogs. From Indian to vegan to organic, it is all there. There is even a television channel dedicated to cooking and gourmet eating.

But in South Los Angeles, this obsession with food is different. Instead, residents there struggle with the purchase of fresh food. There are fewer grocery stores in South Los Angeles than there are in neighboring cities, and the quality of food is of lesser value than those nearby communities.

Mary Lee, a member of the health team at PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization, talks about the aesthetics of grocery stores and the quality of food in South Los Angeles:

Nationwide Issue

For years, major supermarket chains have been criticized for leaving lower income communities. As a result, many of these communities, including Detroit, Memphis and South Los Angeles, lack healthier food options beyond the ever-present corner stores and fast food chains.

“The lack of grocery stores in South Los Angeles specifically has been documented by multiple people, multiple researchers, so it’s an established fact that this is a nationwide issue,” said LaVonna Lewis, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. “They call them food deserts, and what has been demonstrated is that there’s a lack of grocery stores nationally in predominantly African American communities.”

In South Los Angeles, the 1992 Los Angeles riots marked a turning point, said Dave Heylen, the vice president of communications at the California Grocers Association, a statewide trade organization that represents the food industry.

“The civil unrest resulted in burned-down stores, so operators didn’t return to the area,” Heylen said. “The cost to rebuild was too high.”

Food Deserts

Limited access to supermarkets creates a food desert that leads to significant barriers in healthful eating. A food desert generally refers to an area where the consumer’s ability to purchase healthy food is difficult because there are few grocery stores around or the quality of food is poor.

“A food desert can also occur at a place where you buy fresh fruit at a convenience store, which is not known for selling that sort of food, so the store marks the price up on that particular product,” Lee said. “It’s a cruel paradox because people in low-income communities like South Los Angeles are usually the ones who rely on a store in a place where it’s probably impossible to find competition or more than one grocery store.”

Healthy food is also inaccessible when it is physically difficult to get to a store. For communities that rely on public transportation, a trip to a quality grocery store can be onerous if the store is not near a transit corridor.

“It becomes a factor that is beyond income,” Lee said.

Systemic problems continue as well. Lee compared food deserts to racial redlining, where banks and other corporate entities once drew a red line around neighborhoods where people of color lived.

“The banks either did not offer services at all, or they might sell their services at a higher price with less variety,” Lee said. “The same thing occurred with grocery stores. Some have left neighborhoods as they have become populated by one particular racial group. As whites moved further west, grocery stores closed down, and more liquor stores opened up in the area.”

According to a study released by Community Health Councils, a community-based health advocacy organization, South Los Angeles is home to about 1 million people. The area’s 60 full-service grocery stores each serve about 22,156 residents in contrast to the 57 stores in West Los Angeles that average only 11,150 residents.

Lee talks about the number of South Los Angeles residents and why that amount makes the area’s food desert different from others:

South Los Angeles also differs from other food deserts because of its high number of children and seniors, people Lee referred to as “vulnerable residents.”

There are a large number of people in South Los Angeles, but Lee said there are fewer chain grocery stores than there were 20 to 30 years ago.

“That begs for some analysis,” Lee added.

This Project

The idea for this months-long project stemmed from a community workshop conducted by Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report. John Harriel and Maria Isabel Rutledge, both South Los Angeles residents, raised the issue.

The first phase of this ongoing project started with six visits to the Ralphs on Manchester and Western avenues in South Los Angeles. The visits occurred over a three-month period, with Harriel in attendance on three of those visits. During four of the six outings, a number of outdated products remained on the store’s shelves.

See some outdated products:

Harriel said there is a lot of outdated merchandise at some of the grocery stores he goes to in South Los Angeles.

“I want to know why that is,” Harriel added. “I want to know what I can do about it, and I want to know if there are health consequences.”

Lewis talks about health consequences:

Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report looked at other Ralphs locations for the second part of this ongoing project. Shoppers can purchase The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or eat lunch inside the Torrance-based Ralphs, located on Sepulveda Boulevard. The same can be said about the Santa Monica site, located on Cloverfield Boulevard, and the downtown Los Angeles site, located on 9th Street. The Ralphs in Westwood, located on Weyburn Avenue, is clean and spacious. The store validates parking, and there is new hardwood flooring treatment.

But at the Ralphs on Manchester and Western avenues, customers do not get the option to sit inside the grocery store. There is a small Coffee Bean counter, rather than a full-service stand, and customers can only choose from a couple of items. There is a large section where shoppers can buy outdated products with reduced pricing.

Product Dating

“Sell by” and “use by” are common phrases shoppers might find on grocery store products. According to a report issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, these dates are generally called “open dating.” That means the date, as opposed to a code, stamped on a product’s package helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It also helps the purchaser know when the product is at its best quality.

“In most cases, dates on products refer to peak freshness,” Heylen said. “The food is still safe. It may not taste as good. That is why you see the Manager’s Special stickers and reduced pricing.”

The report said, except for infant formula and some baby food, federal regulations do not require product dating. But if a date is shown, the day, month and year must be available. Next to that date must be a “sell by” or “use by” phrase.

Types of Dating

According to the report, the term “sell by” generally tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Purchasers should buy the product before the date expires.

The phrase “best if used by or before” refers to the best flavor or quality of that particular product. It is not a purchase or safety date.

A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while it is at its peak quality. The manufacturer of the product usually determines this date.

“Closed or coded dates” are usually numbers the manufacturer uses.


It is understood that grocery stores are run by economics. They are businesses that need to make money. If people do not buy certain products, they are taken off of the shelves.

“It is strictly supply and demand, and the store provides consumers what they want,” Heylen said. “Most grocery stores will offer the standards of produce, fresh meat, dried goods and beverages, but the way the stores adjust or twek that deals with what products people actually buy.”

That is a common reason why some grocery stores say they do not sell certain products, including various organic and sugar-free foods. But Lewis believes that is an excuse.

“We have demonstrated that people will leave the community if they want to buy things they need,” Lewis said. “If I’m a diabetic, and I need sugar-free products, we have been able to prove that people will leave to get those products.”

Where there are grocery stores in South Los Angeles, some believe they contain products of lesser quality than those in a well-off area.

“You might find a Ralphs in a more affluent or predominately white area that will have better variety, better quality and lower prices,” Lee said. “But in a low-income neighborhood with people of color, there will be limited variety, poorer quality and higher prices.”

But Heylen said the type of community does not affect how many grocery stores actually exist in the area. Instead, retailers often face challenges, including the lack of available land and a burdensome approval process.

“There are also other variables involved,” Heylen said. “It depends when one particular grocery store opened. At that time, maybe people built smaller stores. You cannot look at one store and say, ‘Look at this one,’ and then look at another store from the same chain and say, ‘Look at that one.’ You have to make sure you compare apples to apples.”


Efforts to improve health and eliminate disparities in South Los Angeles mirror those that occur in other food deserts around the country.

Lee talks about a grocery store’s herd mentality:

Philadelphia, PA created a collaborative effort between fiscal investors and community-based groups. The city developed an initiative called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provides loans and grants to help stores open. The money also helps existing stores upgrade. The initiative has been around for five or six years, and it has resulted in nearly 100 store openings, Lee said.

“California is also in the throws of getting a healthy food financing initiative,” Lee added. “That one would be the result of now-pending legislation. The person who introduced it is from the South Los Angeles area, and he has been aware of how difficult it has been to address this issue of attracting new stores and upgrading existing stores. We’re hopeful that the dollars that might come out of our state budget will incentivize new store development.”

But the ability to eat healthily still depends on other food resources available in the community.

Obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are other problems people in South Los Angeles, and the rest of the nation, face.

Lewis talks about obesity:

The South Los Angeles area experiences disproportionately high rates of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases compared with West Los Angeles. According to a Community Health Councils study, about 35 percent of adults are obese in South Los Angeles, while only 10 percent of adults experience obesity in nearby West Los Angeles.

Diet-related chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are also more prevalent in the area. Lee said the abundance of fast food restaurants contributes to these conditions.

“The fast food growth absolutely tracked the population growth,” Lee added. “They create a real quandary for the consumer. These places tend to sell cheap and convenient food. You leave people with the option of taking a long bus ride to the grocery store or walking a short distance by foot.”

Heylen said food deserts have been an issue for decades, but he believes changes have slowly been made.

“You see a movement of more and more companies that are cognizant of their responsibilities for good, healthy food,” Heylen added. “The shift is happening. It will not happen overnight, but it is moving in that direction, and we will do what we can to bring more grocery stores to South Los Angeles.”

Grocery Stores

United Kingdom-based Tesco recently opened its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in South Los Angeles. The store opening continues a broader movement to bring development to that neighborhood.

But an online search showed no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in the South Los Angeles community. The closest Trader Joe’s is in Westchester, some miles away. On the Whole Foods website, a pull-down menu reveals many locations. Compton, Inglewood, Watts and other South Los Angeles cities do not fall among the areas listed.

See a map of grocery stores in South Los Angeles:

View Grocery Stores in South Los Angeles in a larger map


If you have any questions, or if you want to contact health organizations, please visit the following websites:

Community Health Councils

Healthy Eating Active Communities

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health