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.”

Southside Stories: A melting pot of healthy flavors

This story is part of a semester-long project by USC Annenberg students spotlighting South LA. Stories featured on Intersections South LA have been written by students in USC Professor Robert Hernandez’s class. See more Southside Stories here.

By Ivana Banh

Walk into any restaurant on Slauson Avenue and you will most likely be offered greasy fried chicken, Chinese food, flavored with monosodium glutamate, or some sort of burger dripping with bacon grease.

Simply Wholesome is different.

The bright green building boasts glowing lights, floor-to-ceiling windows and a welcoming vibe. Inside the spacious restaurant, regulars are greeted with hugs from Owner Percell Keeling and the young staff. image

Upbeat jazz music plays loudly while blenders whip up protein shakes. The air is scented with blend of sweet potatoes, spices and freshly baked vegan cake.

As a former Redondo Beach health nut with a passion for distance running, Keeling knows what the human body needs to function properly. When he moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he immediately discovered that very few health-conscious restaurants existed.

The majority of South Los Angeles was African-American and tended to serve artery-clogging Southern meals. Keeling was often forced to drive out to South Bay, Hollywood or Marina Del Rey for more nutritious food.

His exasperation with junk food in the area would lead to something much bigger. One day, while he was voicing his complaints, a friend suggested he open his own restaurant. At the time, any type of establishment offering foods that were not deep-fried and bacon-adorned was practically unheard of.

“Everyone was saying to open the restaurant further west because black people don’t eat healthy,” Keeling said. “But I’m black and I eat healthy!”

In 1981, Keeling opened Simply Wholesome. For the first few years, the 1,000 square-foot restaurant offered a small selection of healthy sandwiches, salads and pastries. As the fan base rapidly grew, Keeling knew he had to expand in order to accommodate the diners. In 1995, he bought a 5,000 square-foot 1950s-style diner. He renovated the building to construct a dining area and a small health market.

Keeling and his staff work to ensure that the market is always stocked with organic cereals, frozen meals, coconut water and probiotic drinks. In addition, the market carries African-American hair product lines like Mixed Chicks and Kinky-Curly. Shoppers can also browse a wide selection of cookbooks and health literature.

Simply Wholesome’s extensive menu offers more choices than most health food restaurants. Many mistake Simply Wholesome as a purely vegan restaurant, but Keeling assures that meat dishes are also available. Their specialities include flaky Caribbean pastries filled with spiced chicken and vegetables, enchiladas, veggie burgers and hearty breakfasts. Those who prefer a more traditional meal often choose the “Down Home Sunday Dinner,” which consists of battered or grilled tofu, chicken or fish, candied yams, greens, rice and corn bread.

As for the beverage menu, 45 different protein shakes and smoothies are available. Rather than using premixed blends full of sugar and artificial flavorings, Simply Wholesome opts for fresh fruit, soy milk and coconut juice. Customers often pay a few extra cents for add-ons such as wheat germ, bee pollen and ginseng.

“All our shakes are made from fresh, real ingredients so they’re not bland like the other juice places out there,” Keeling said. “It may cost more to do it this way, but the return in business volume is all worth it.”

Simply Wholesome’s large and devoted fan base has proven Keeling’s business theories correct. The restaurant is now more than a convenient stop for those passing through the South Los Angeles area; Keeling has met diners from dozens of miles away that make Simply Wholesome their breakfast, lunch or dinner destination.

The restaurant may sit in a predominantly African-American area of Los Angeles, but it receives customers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Over time, the menu has also been influenced by the diversities in the Los Angeles community. Caribbean, American, Mexican and African flavors work together to create Simply Wholesome’s plethora of healthy selections.

“This place is like a melting pot, the energy here – everyone is one when they come through the doors,” Keeling said. “Everyone is cool.”

The Pasadena and the University of Southern California communities have encouraged Keeling to open Simply Wholesome locations in their neighborhoods, but he declined their offers.

When it comes to expanding his business, Keeling prefers to do so in a unique building, not a cookie-cutter spot in a strip mall. The down-to-earth owner prefers to keep it simple rather than opening several mediocre locations, and he chooses to provide quality service and food in one hot spot.

His goal is to foster an environment in which both his customers and staff feel comfortable and at home.