Promoting Healthy Alternatives to LA's Food Deserts

February 26, 2019
Ryan Imondi

In early February, Children’s Institute held a Family Health Fair in South Los Angeles with the goal of promoting simple ways to live a healthier life to the children and families CII serves. The event sought to expand access to preventative health care while making activities like visiting the dentist or eating plant-based meals more palatable.

Held at CII’s Figueroa Center and sponsored by the Herbalife Nutrition Foundation, the fair brought together 21 community organizations that spanned different health and wellness fields. Community partners like UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic, Benevolence Health Center Inc., and Dignity Health, offered free screenings for dental, vision and blood pressure. Zumba and yoga courses were held throughout the day and wellness tools like electric tooth brushes and fitness trackers were raffled off.

As the day progressed, the importance of regular medical and dental checkups was discussed, but many attendees, volunteers and community organizers kept coming back to one area that was crucial to preventative health and wellness – a balanced diet.

CII works to reduce food deserts in South LAVegan tamales were served by Claudia Lopez and her restaurant Mama’s International Tamales.

Justine Lawrence, Vice President of Head Start at CII, said South LA offers few options when it comes to healthy eating. She said fast food restaurants are often the only option in these neighborhoods and the impact takes a toll on families living in food deserts.

“If you drive around this community, you are going to be hard pressed to find a grocery store that has fresh food,” she said. “We have a lot of children coming into our program struggling with obesity.”

Large swaths of South LA are considered food deserts. The term, created in the 1990s, describes urban areas that lack grocery stores where residents can buy fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. The United States Department of Agriculture has released multiple studies showing that there are large parts of South LA where fast food or processed food are the only available options.

Ongoing studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to a clear connection between negative long-term health effects in areas where fresh food is limited. As a result, higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure have been reported in these areas.

If you drive around this community, you are going to be hard pressed to find a grocery store that has fresh food.

– Justin Lawrence, Vice President of Head Start at CII

Angel Gaines, Site Supervisor for Compton Early Head Start, said she personally struggled with high blood pressure. She grew up in South LA food deserts and didn’t start eating healthy until after join CII and learning about maintaining a balanced diet.

Gaines said an important part of working with children and families is encouraging a healthy lifestyle that includes fresh food. As Gaines promoted physical activity by leading Zumba and yoga courses at the Family Health Fair, she said families are often unaware of the potential negative consequences when they eat only processed foods.

“When we have high blood pressure or diabetes, it is usually caused by what we are eating,” she said.

Olga, who has been attending CII programs since her daughter Sophia was 3 months old, said she appreciated how CII promotes cost-effective ways to make healthy meals while living in food deserts. She said she was able to cook food that is healthy without abandoning family recipes tied to her own Hispanic heritage.

“It opens up a door for people who may not want just raw vegetables,” she said. “Tamales are part of our culture, but they can be vegetarian or vegan.”

Claudia Lopez took this philosophy and turned it into a business. Her restaurant, Mama’s International Tamales, was at the Family Health Fair serving vegan tamales with vegetarian sides.

CII shares alternatives to food deserts in South LAStaff from CII’s Early Childhood Education display healthy alternatives to chips and candy as after school snacks. 

“I felt our community needed more health-based food options,” she said. “It is easy to substitute healthier ingredients like jack fruit or stop cooking with lard.”

Lopez views her restaurant, located in MacArthur Park, as an opportunity to educate people on how cultural foods like tamales can stay delicious while also being healthy. She said people often try her tamales and say they are shocked it was vegan.

Edgar, a parent visiting the Family Health Fair with his three children, said he would have never guessed the food from Mama’s International Tamales were vegan. He said he was drawn to the tamales aroma at the food booth after only being at the fair for a few minutes.

As a parent, Aguila has noticed a positive shift toward healthier eating. He said it is easy as a parent in South LA to get into a routine of eating too much fast food. He was thankful to see cost effective balanced eating promoted by CII and other community organizations.

“We raised our kids on McDonald’s for years, but now we’re more into cooking at home with kale, arugula and cauliflower,” he said. “Eating well is a big factor in growing up healthy and not getting sick.”

As many pointed out at the event, long-term success for South LA is continuing to expand the number of healthy food options while keeping costs low.

The average household income for neighborhoods in this area range between $33,000-$45,000 according to data published by the LA Times. Spending $10-$15 for a quick and healthy meal, which is often the cost in Santa Monica or West Hollywood, is not within the budgets of most residents in South LA.

Lakisha May, a field marketer for fast food startup Everytable, was offering up an example on how businesses can better serve residents of South LA food deserts and stay profitable. May said Everytable has a sliding scale for menu items. In South LA, Everytable items cost less than at their restaurants in other parts of the city where average incomes are higher.

For South LA to eat healthier, having affordable options will be crucial.

“It is different for people with less resources,” May said.

Thank you to event support from: Herbalife Nutrition Foundation; Mama’s International Tamales; CII Intensive Programs; LA Public Library; CII PowerUp!; CII Project Fatherhood; Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC; CII PABC; CII PFF, P&A; UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic; Eyeglass Store of OC; CII ERSEA; Benevolence Health Centers, Inc.; CII ECS; Dignity Health; Susan G. Komen; California WIC; Fun Dental 4 Kids; AltaMed.