Creating Equitable Food Environments: the importance of accessible, affordable, healthy food for all

Written by Mary Lee, Deputy Director of PolicyLink and LAFPC Leadership Board Member. A shortened version of this article is featured on page 30 in our 2013 Los Angeles Food System Snapshot, available here.

On a very fundamental level, the food system in the Los Angeles region – like the food system across the nation – is profoundly inequitable. Like many other communities in the US, Los Angeles is highly segregated by race and income. Neighborhoods that people of color or low income people live in must contend with multiple challenges simultaneously: inadequate housing, troubled schools, crime, and polluted air. These communities also lack parks, playgrounds, health clinics, public transportation—and adequate access to retailers offering healthy food. By contrast, an array of food retailers, including supermarkets, organic food stores and farmers markets have flocked to affluent white areas. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, whites fled from urban areas and into the suburbs, and supermarkets followed, putting in motion a trend that has only recently begun to subside.

SouthLA Convenience Store B July2012 HFChauTo better understand what is at stake, consider what access to healthy food means in this context. Accessible can mean a geographic location that shoppers of all income levels can easily reach. Too many people—particularly those living in low income communities and communities of color—cannot walk to a store in their neighborhood that sells healthy foods, and there is no public transportation that can get them to such stores without long rides and several transfers. Distance becomes a factor even for those with cars, as the high cost of gas and the time it takes to get there ultimately makes the food more expensive. Therefore, accessible also means affordable—because if the price is prohibitive, consumers go without. In low-income areas and communities of color, if grocery stores are present at all, prices are actually likely to be higher than they would be in more affluent areas. At the same time, the quality of the food in stores that are present in low-income areas and communities of color is likely to be inferior, with very little variety. These characteristics are also part of access—food is not accessible if it is spoiled, or if the product you need is not available.

Note too the need to have a working definition of the concept of healthy food. Basically, it is food that is fresh rather than processed, and that has little or added no sodium or sugar, where a variety of options exist, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, diary, lean fish, meat and poultry, as well as organic choices. This type of food can be nearly impossible to find in many LA neighborhoods. Unfortunately, at the same time these same areas are routinely inundated with fast food restaurants and convenience and liquor stores that offer foods fried in saturated fat, highly processed snack foods, sweetened sodas and alcohol, all at rock bottom prices. The combination of not enough healthy food and too much cheap, unhealthy food is not only unfair – – the long-term consequences are deadly. Poor diet and inadequate activity have become the second leading cause of death in the U.S., hitting people of color the hardest. The absence of healthy food is a stark illustration of the fact that where you live affects your health. If you live in a Los Angeles community with stores and restaurants that sell healthy foods, along with elements such as parks and playgrounds, you are likely to thrive. If your neighborhood lacks these elements you are more likely to suffer from obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease, or to die of a stroke or cancer.

Inequitable food environments not only threaten the health of individuals but compromise the economic vitality of neighborhoods as well. Residents of such neighborhoods pay more for the food they buy, either because they must add the time and expense of traveling to stores in other areas to their food costs; or because nearby convenience stores and liquor stores charge more.

Furthermore, neighborhoods that lack grocery stores or other healthy food retailers lose out on direct economic benefits that stores generate, such as jobs, small business opportunities, local and regional economic activity, and local and state tax revenues. The loss of tax revenues is particularly significant for Los Angeles’ low-income communities, as local and state taxes go toward the public services these communities desperately need: education, health care, transportation, public assistance programs and public safety. There are also indirect benefits that can be derived from the presence of healthy food retailers. Well-maintained and well-stocked grocery stores serve as anchors for commercial development and shopping plazas, and can spur neighborhood revitalization. New food retail stores can be located on the vacant or abandoned lots, or on decimated commercial corridors. This is the type of economic renewal that can reinvigorate a workforce and strengthen housing markets.  By contrast, an inequitable food environment is an economic drain that compromises the residential property values of the surrounding neighborhood, and causes financial stagnation for adjacent businesses as well.

The good news is that there are several promising practices and innovative strategies that are beginning to yield results, making food environments healthier and more equitable. The LAFPC is engaged in several of these strategies, including efforts to attract new stores to underserved areas, and programs designed to help existing corner stores and neighborhood markets upgrade the quality and variety of products they offer. Members of LAFPC working groups are deeply involved in Urban Agriculture, as well as innovative methods that will improve the quality of school food and food sold by small food vendors; they are also making connections to food assistance programs such as EBT, WIC and SNAP to address the critical issues of food insecurity.

The result is increasing participation by community residents and stakeholders who examine their local food system and work with local and regional officials and agencies to insist on policy changes that will support the development of healthy food retail that will meet their needs.

Ultimately, the food system in Los Angeles will only be sustainable if it is also equitable. We can start the process by increasing access to healthy food in every neighborhood in our region.