A healthier South LA: Food options increase while obesity decreases

South Los Angeles has been plagued with having the recognition of being among one of the most obese areas in L.A. However, the community is slowly finding a cure for its plague.

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

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. City officials have taken measures in recent years 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 three 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 and was the first decrease for South L.A. in over a decade.



Paul Simon, the director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, said the decrease in obesity in South L.A. is not the result of the moratorium alone.

“It was a combination of things from the food moratorium to programming that is put on by different places, like Community Health Councils,” Simon said. “These programs that teach people how to be healthy and others that emphasize exercise are crucial for South L.A.”

Breanna Morrison, a health policy analyst at Community Health Councils, said the moratorium did more than just ban fast food restaurants. She said it is often assumed that the South L.A. community does not care about working towards being healthier, which she argues is entirely untrue.

“The policy has shown that the community is concerned about health because the community was the one that asked for this policy to take place,” Morrison said. “The mentality of people in South L.A. is changing and that’s one of the reasons for the slight decrease we saw in obesity in 2011.”

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

Despite the efforts taken by groups like the Community Health Councils six years ago to have the fast food moratorium put in place, a new proposed community plan for the West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park areas threatens to undo such efforts. The proposed community plan would make Council District 10 exempt from the fast food moratorium restrictions, but they would remain in place throughout the rest of the South L.A. area.

The community did not respond well to this proposed plan. At a City Planning Commission hearing at City Hall in April, over 75 community members, including residents, researchers, physicians, labor and public health experts, expressed their concerns about the proposed exemption.

Regina Freer, the vice president of the City Planning Commission, said the commission listened to over six hours of testimony. “Ninety percent of it was folks who were interested in making sure that the moratorium stuck. So I think that indicates that people care about it,” Freer said. “Folks are paying more attention and realizing that we have to address the obesity crisis in some way and we’re doing it.”

By the end of the meeting, the City Planning Commission decided to recommend removing the exemption from the community plan. However, Freer said the recommendation still needs to be approved by the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and eventually the full City Council to go into affect.

Among the community members who testified at the City Planning Commission hearing was Marie Alise de Marco.

farmers market“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.”

However, De Marco also said she thinks South L.A. is beginning to change. She said that there are a few avenues where she sees hope for South L.A. to become a healthier community.

De Marco says the Crenshaw Farmer’s Market is one of these avenues.

“The farmer’s market is the best option for people in South L.A.,” de Marco said. “They don’t have to worry about driving to another area to buy their organic foods.”

The Crenshaw Farmer’s Market sits in the Sears’ parking lot at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Every Saturday it is bustling with people buying everything from organic oranges to avocado oils.

“Hello! Welcome to the farmer’s market,” Alejandro Corona said to customers passing by the information booth.

“How are you today?” Corona asked a woman as he counted out 20 Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) dollars, or food stamps, that she could use to buy products from the vendors at the market.

“I’m great. It’s such a beautiful day,” the woman replied as her son tugged at her dress and pointed to the kettle corn booth.

“Thank you so much for coming today,” Corona said as he passed the EBT dollars to the woman.

“Thank you guys. I love this place,” she said and then looked to her son. “Okay, okay baby we’ll go get your popcorn now.”

Corona, who is the assistant manager at the Crenshaw Farmer’s Market, said the farmer’s market continues to get more and more people each weekend.

“The people who are coming are trying to be more healthy,” Corona said. “So they ask for more information about how to be healthier so we try to give them more information, such as giving out healthy recipes.”

Dawn Scott, 38, is a regular at the Crenshaw Farmer’s Market. She said she’s trying to be healthier by buying only organic foods.

“I come to this farmer’s market almost every weekend,” Scott said. “It’s the best place to buy organic foods I can’t get at other places.”

Free yoga class at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

Free yoga class at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

Sampson, 44, who has been teaching yoga for eight years, said she teaches yoga in South L.A. because she feels it is the community that needs it most, as many people in the area lack access to exercise classes. Her class is part of a program called Bfit at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The program offers free exercise classes throughout the week, from zumba to yoga, at the mall for anyone to attend.

“I call it yoga classes for the masses,” Sampson explained. “It’s a class where everyone, regardless of your ability to pay, age, shape or size can come and practice yoga.”

Sampson began teaching at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza a year ago.

“Good morning class,” Kali Sampson said as she laid her yoga mat on the floor in front of her class.  “I want you all to go into child’s pose,” Sampson said.

Sampson tucked her legs underneath her, laid her head down to the mat and placed her arms above her head. Her class of about 50 students of all different races and ages proceeded to follow her lead and all laid their heads down on their mats.

“Now, take a deep breath and let everything go,” Sampson instructed. “Take slow breaths in and out.”

Sampson said her class began with a small group of four or five people. Now she said on any given weekend she can get as many as 70 students in her class.

“People in South L.A. are starting to change,” Sampson said. “They’re beginning to be healthier both inside and out and it’s beautiful.”

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