A Food Desert By Any Other Name

What is the real story behind food deserts?  New research from the Public Policy Institute of California comes to the same conclusion that researchers from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy came to five years ago. I guess the confirmation of these findings is cause for a low calorie celebration. Or perhaps a victory lap around the Staples Center, (LA’s official monument to Coca Cola).

Photo: L.A. Times

The new study by Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California found that there are actually very few official food
deserts in California, and that obesity is not correlated with how many grocery stores a community has.

Not many food deserts?  So what’s all the fuss been about?

In most communities it’s not a lack of food that’s the problem, it’s a lack of healthy food compared to an over abundance of unhealthy food.  Back in 2007, research by CCPHA, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, and PolicyLink, found a strong and direct relationship between the RFEI of the area in which someone lives and their likelihood of being obese or having diabetes.

The what? The Retail Food Environment Index (RFEI) is a ratio of unhealthy outlets (fast food restaurants and convenience stores) to healthier outlets (grocery stores and produce markets) in a given area. It’s a measure of how unhealthy the options are when you walk outside your door.  The higher the number, the more junk is being sold around you.  Statewide, the RFEI is 4.2, meaning there are a whopping four times as many unhealthy outlets as healthy ones. (For more statistics on RFEI, or how it applies to local communities, visit this story from last October on Healthy El Monte.)

California adults living in high RFEI areas (RFEI of 5.0 or higher – five times more unhealthy outlets than healthier ones) had a 20 percent higher prevalence of obesity and a 23 percent higher prevalence of diabetes than their counterparts living in RFEI areas of 3.0 or lower. A higher RFEI was associated with a higher prevalence of both obesity and diabetes for people living in lower-income and higher-income communities alike. Not surprisingly, the highest rates of obesity and diabetes are among people who live in lower-income and higher RFEI communities.
This relationship between RFEI and obesity and diabetes rates hold true regardless of household income, race/ethnicity, age, gender, or physical activity levels of respondents.

With her forceful support for healthy eating and physical fitness, First Lady Michelle Obama made the words ‘food desert’ part of the public lexicon when she launched the Let’s Move campaign. Now, with the Administration pledging to get rid of food deserts within seven years by helping communities invest in healthier food outlets, the question is being raised whether poorer neighborhoods really do lack healthy food access.

In the 1964 obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote what is perhaps his best known judicial opinion. In his short concurrence in Jacobellis Stewart wrote that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”

Given the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes among young people in places like Los Angeles, Pico Rivera and El Monte, perhaps what is more important than what we call these challenged neighborhoods, is what we are doing about them.  It’s not just about getting more grocery stores in them, it’s also about increasing the availabilty of healthy food, compared to fast food and junk food, in the community. This is the kind of decision that every community gets to make for itself.  It is one of the powers that zoning ordinances give local residents.

Are you sick of, and from, all the unhealthy choices sold in your community? Don’t despair; to the extent you can, vote with your fork and work with community leaders to bring into your neighborhood markets deserving of your business. And be sure to tell your city council that you and your kids deserve better.

Joel Epstein is an at-large member of the Board of California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a Member of the L.A. Streetsblog Editorial Board.

  • Mike

    The photo above is from Crenshaw Blvd, south of Adams Blvd, which is my neighborhood. This neighborhood is an interesting case, and I think none of the current models apply very well.

    Unlike many neighborhoods in LA, there are a couple of supermarkets nearby, so healthy food is easy to find, but, there are also dozens of fast food places, many taquerias, and many liquor stores.  Really, we’re drowning in food of all types, to be honest.  But you can really tell that each place is catering to a different demographic within our ‘hood.

    I think that if one were to study my neighborhood, one would have to break people up into categories.  What is the food availability if you have a car vs not have a car?  What is the food availability if you prefer to communicate in Spanish?  What is the food availiability if you use food-stamp-friendly markets and restaurants?

  • sahra

    Thanks, Joel. Great timing for this piece. I’m just starting to look at an organization that is tackling the issue of getting fresh food to people in a way that fits with how they shop and live in their communities. Outsiders often think, “get those people some farmers markets or big grocery stores,” even though those might not be the most appropriate solutions, especially for those trying to meet needs right now, as opposed to 15 years down the line. Perhaps we can chat as I gather more information for the story?

  • WalkinginLADOTCOM

    Funny how the LA city council just tried to ban a Wallmart Grocery store in a location with Burger King, Jack in the box and Subway within a stone’s trow.  In the same vain they try to ban Fast food restaurants in South LA.  I think the city council has a case of the Mitt Romneys.

  • Are there community organizations within these neighborhoods that are working on teaching people shopping and cooking skills? I think the message that’s sort of become constant over the past few years that all these neigborhoods have are fast food restaurants is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d hope that there are local activists showing people that  there are other choices that they can make for themselves. 

  • sahra

    Yes, several, including. Rootdown, Community Services Unlimited (who I’ll be profiling and talking about that approach and others that they take to getting people to eat healthy), a number of the school gardens even hold workshops for parents and community members, to name a few. There is more going on than people think, but they are very localized efforts. The challenge in working in these communities is that organizing entails a lot of door-knocking and trust-building…the majority of people are not online, so reaching them is a slower process. This means that while there are efforts, they may have a limited reach because of those constraints, not because of disinterest in the community.

  • Thanks sahra, I think those efforts could make an interesting (and encouraging!) story. Reading about the prevalence of fast food locations and liquor stores and the political battles around them just gets kind of depressing after a while.