Everything You Need to Know About Food Deserts

You’ve likely heard of food deserts and, more recently, food apartheid — both referring to urban areas that lack access to widespread healthy food options with obesity and cardiovascular health issues ever-rising.

As more and more Americans turn toward food sustainability, with a sincere interest in where their food comes from, it seems we’re still seriously neglecting to push this movement to our inner cities. Camden, New York, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Minneapolis make up America’s list of most populated food deserts according to the USDA.

But how can some of these same cities boast some of the best and elite food scenes in the country with food deserts just miles away?

To understand these food security disparities I looked at studies and experiences from all over the country, but since I’m in San Diego, I decided to focus on a designated food desert close to me: south Los Angeles.

I called a socio-economics professor friend at Cornell in upstate NY who has worked in food policy for over 20 years. The first thing he asked me was, “Do you think food deserts are real? What research are you looking at because most of the data indicates they are a myth driven by a mix of socio-cultural issues causing food insecurity.”

I hadn’t considered the non-existence of food deserts, but when I found my initial research was slightly contradicted, I began to research more extensively. I searched different phrases: “current food desert myths”, “problem with food desert theories”, “how does behavior influence food deserts”, “stories from food deserts in LA”, and “south LA food desert myths.”

Now I’d finally reached some depth. Let’s dive in…

Food desert myth: There aren’t any or enough accessible community gardens, farmer’s markets, or urban farms in south LA.

According to the Los Angeles Community Gardening Council, as of 2017 there were 19 community gardens and urban farms counted in south LA — more than was accounted for in both west and east LA.

Compton Gardens, Compton’s community garden is doing its part to promote gardening as a solution to not only grow your own food alongside your neighbors, but in doing so the garden’s mission is to promote fresh air exposure and exercise as a remedy to obesity and diabetes.

While LA county offers a tax break for landowners to turn their undeveloped or unimproved lots into urban gardens, landowners may be apprehensive thinking their land could raise more funds than the break could offer.

While the idea of the community garden is indeed catching on here, it has a long way to go in effecting big change for food security issues in Compton.

Food desert myth: There aren’t enough grocery stores to access healthy food. If there were more, nutritional equality would improve, reducing food deserts.

A 2012 report by USDA researchers found that there are more grocery stores in areas of poverty compared to wealthy areas. A 2017 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled, “Eliminating ‘Food Deserts’ Won’t Cure Nutritional Inequality” suggested that increasing access to fresh foods — namely vegetables and fruit — does not mean people will buy them. Studies conducted by Social Science & Medicine and Health Affairs found that opening grocery stores with fresh foods available did not change buying patterns or have an influence on reducing obesity rates in inner cities.

But why is this?

Anthropology professor, Ashante Reese at Spelman College in Atlanta said that continuing to describe a problem that is due to a mix of corporate decisions and a complex human ecosystem as a food desert is laziness. Through her research, she has revealed a swath of other variables that make it more difficult to act on public health messages, including job discrimination, longer commutes, reduced educational opportunities, and greater overall emotional stress.

In an interview with Epicurious, Reese said, “First, I think we have to stop pretending that our food system is not broken. It is broken, and it isn’t just broken because of the threat of GMOs or people not knowing their farmers or where their food comes from. That is, indeed, part of it — but it’s also broken because it has always reflected back to us the inequalities that exist in our society. To really reckon with that means we have to consider how race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability are not just individual experiences or identities. They are structures — often oppressive structures — that we cannot ignore. To treat them intersectionally is to consider how food is not separate from race, not separate from gender, not separate from ability, and that where a person or community stands at these intersections means that they have radically different life chances and access to food.”

Reese’s research of these variables shows that these are issues of the greater community, not simply just the area lacking food security. If it’s a Compton issue, it’s a south LA issue, and if it’s a south LA issue, it’s an LA issue.

Health inequality researchers have weighed in. In the integrative health community, we call it HPA-axis imbalance or adrenal fatigue. Similarly, Bruce McEwan, a pioneer of research in the biology of health inequality has coined the term “allostatic load.” Allostatic load is used to describe the long term physiological devastation that the fight-or-flight response can elicit on the body. He discusses how people in food deserts are exceptionally vulnerable to diseases that increase whole-person inflammation, like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Of what Reese sites, continued exposure to stress is the encompassing, pivotal variable. When parents are exposed to these levels of stress, not only is it increasingly difficult to act on public health messages, but also to model healthy habits to their children and families. Many children find it acceptable to eat fast food regularly because that’s what their parents do and they’ve experienced little else. In many cases, children are left to take care of their own meals while parents and single parents are away from the home working.

McEwan reveals an uncomfortable suggestion — that poverty itself is making people sick.

I decided to connect with a primary source from the neighborhood to help us understand how his experience growing up in Compton would offer insight into what’s really driving the local perception. Lemel Durrah, the owner of Compton Vegan, a full-service vegan catering, meal prep, and pop-up, talked to me about what his neighborhood thinks about veganism.

Durrah says the main misconception is that veganism is for white or rich people. With his dishes having a strong resemblance to meat, he says curiosity is piqued despite these misconceptions. It may be a strong point that instead of establishing a brick and mortar from the get-go, Durrah’s business is mobile, possibly increasing exposure around the neighborhood until the idea of vegan comfort food catches on.

“Most companies don’t think they will make money in the inner city,” says Durrah. “Cheap and convenient food is the recipe for profit here. If there were upscale options, then the people in the community would be able to make that choice as the consumer. If KFC, McDonald’s, and Popeyes are all people see on a daily basis, they are conditioned to believe that this type of lifestyle and diet are acceptable.”   

Compton Vegan isn’t the only vegan mobile food biz making an appearance in south LA these days. Best known for her role of Felicia in the 90’s cult movie classic, Friday, Angela Means, owns and runs the vegan soul-food truck, Jackfruit Cafe, primarily operating along Crenshaw Blvd. in Jackson Heights, outside of King’s Donuts.

In an interview with the non-profit organization, Sons and Brothers that works to raise health-awareness for youth of color, Means shared the same sentiment as Durrah, “Why does everyone have to have diabetes, why does everyone have hypertension? In terms of healthy food, there’s nothing here.” Means decided to operate along Crenshaw to help tackle the issue in the neighborhood by offering a new visual to juxtapose the fast food options one typically sees block after block in this area.

Means grew up growing her own food on a farm that provided food to the community — it’s in her blood to bring back the old ways to not only feed people, but to nourish them. She’s showing people that yes, you can eat hardy, traditional soul foods that, at the same time, are health-conferring.

Still, in south LA, it seems agreed upon that corporations are not bringing in True Food Kitchen over KFC any time soon. In the absence of healthier corporate choices, will Durrah and Means’ businesses create enough visibility and proof through a tasty experience of improved health? Will the taste of healthy comfort foods replace the perceived need and want for fast foods enough to inspire other healthy, independent business owners to take the risk to open in the neighborhood?

Do you live in a neighborhood dubbed a food desert? Have you effected change in one and how has the community benefited? Please share your experiences with us.

Christine Dionese, co-founder of flavor ID is an integrative, epigenetic health and food therapy specialist, as well as a wellness, lifestyle, and food journalist. She has dedicated her career to helping others understand the science of happiness and its powerful effects on everyday human health by harnessing the power of the epigenetic landscape. Christine lives, works, and plays with her family in Southern California.

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