There are thousands of transient denizens who spend four years almost exclusively in South Los Angeles without ever identifying as residents of South Los Angeles: students at the University of Southern California. As USC students, we traverse Hoover Street, Vermont Avenue, and Exposition Boulevard every day—streets replete with small businesses—yet we patronize only three restaurants, shop at only two grocery stores, and recognize just one type of neighbor. That is, we recognize the other USC students living on our blocks, but no one else seems to register on our radars. Many of us will graduate unable to name a single person who natively resides in South Los Angeles, much less able to describe the general quality of life here. It comes as no surprise, then, that most USC students know nothing about the food injustice that is a reality all around them.
This, to me, is a tragedy. In the following paper, I will define food injustice, illustrate why food justice matters, and characterize the food injustice prevalent in South Los Angeles. I will recommend some feasible ways to combat food injustice and illustrate how USC students in particular might aid the effort in their community. I hope to make a compelling case for why students ought to get involved: it benefits both their communities and themselves.
WHAT IS FOOD JUSTICE?
Food justice is the notion that the “benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed, and eaten [should be] shared fairly…[with the] common goal of challenging the injustices that exist throughout the dominant industrial and increasingly globalized food system” (Gottlieb et al. 7). It follows, then, that food injustice occurs when certain groups are forced to bear the brunt of the risks associated with food consumption, due to their political, social, and economic exclusion from access to healthy, sustainable food. The food justice movement “borrows its distributional equity framework from the environmental justice movement, its focus on access to food from the community food security movement, and its interest in food environments from research in the public health and food systems fields” (Vallianatos 186). It is a concept inextricably linked to environmental sustainability, institutional racism, cultural sensitivity, labor rights, community development, and health. While food justice activism may take many different forms, and activists may fight for many different reasons, the crux of the movement is the same: all people deserve to have food that nourishes and sustains.
WHY DOES FOOD JUSTICE MATTER?
Food, as one of the most basic necessities of life, also has a “central role in the creation of community” (Yano, Ku et al. 34). We ought to harness that important role it plays by treating food consumption as a framework for building civic values. However, food is instead seen as the unhappy by-product of our lost struggle against our appetites. The manner in which we consume food should not be a reflection of our socioeconomic location, but rather a “tool toward racial and economic liberation” (Alkon et al. 355), I doubt there is anything else that lies so perfectly at the intersection of identity and sustenance, yet remains so alienated from the average citizen.
WHAT DOES FOOD INJUSTICE LOOK LIKE IN SOUTH LOS ANGELES?
South Los Angeles is a food desert; it’s an urban neighborhood “without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, [it may be] served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores” (USDA. org). Full-service grocery stores “have been shown to increase the ability to eat healthily” because they generally are able to “offer a larger selection of healthy foods at lower prices compared with corner grocery and convenience stores” (Bassford et al. 5). After Los Angeles was rocked by the Rodney King riots in 1992, four large grocery chains teamed up to revivify some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods through the Rebuild LA program. They pledged to establish 32 new supermarkets in low-income food neighborhoods. The Chairman of Vons vocalized his awareness of food deserts as such: “We concluded that there was an enormously dense population that we were not adequately serving or not serving at all” (Vallianatos 188). However, after ten years, only one new supermarket was built in the Rebuild LA area. In 2002, there were “3.04 times as many supermarkets per capita in upper income zip codes as in income zip codes, 3.17 times as many supermarkets in majority white zip codes as compared to majority African American zip codes; and 1.69 times more supermarkets in majority white as in majority Latino zip codes” (Vallianatos 188). Today, South Los Angeles makes do with 60 full-service grocery stores that on average serve 22,156 residents each, whereas affluent West Los Angeles has 57 stores that serve only 11,150 residents each (Bassford et al. 18).
For many individuals and families, the lack of grocery stores nearby poses a barrier to healthful eating and contributes to food insecurity. The USDA defines food insecure individuals as those whose “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year” (USDA.org), and Los Angeles County is the most food-insecure county in the country. LA is home to 643,640 hungry children, “nearly double what the second most food-insecure county has” (Miles). In addition, South Los Angeles has the second highest rate of obesity in the country as well (North-Hager). The dearth of full-service grocery stores, compounded with “poverty, a lack of parks and safe places to play, and inadequate access to health care,” make for “a disturbing double find of hunger and obesity” (Vallianatos 187).
The kicker is, we have not seen any upward trends toward improvement. Since 1997, the obesity rate in South LA has increased by 36% (North-Hager). Between 2003 and 2005, “the food insecurity gap between predominately white and affluent West LA County and predominately Latino and African American and low-income South LA County had doubled from seven percent to fifteen percent” (Vallianatos 188). There is a complete disconnect currently between how we envision food equity and how our foodways are actually structured, and it is a social pathology that will continue to erode our community’s well-being unless we act now.
HOW CAN WE COMBAT FOOD INJUSTICE?
There are currently a number of food justice initiatives in place, fueled by community involvement and non-profit advocacy. After finding that 73% of restaurants in South Los Angeles were fast food, versus only 42% of restaurants in West Los Angeles in 2010 (Lewis et al. 114), the LA City Council place a moratorium on new stand-alone fast food restaurants within a half-mile of existing restaurants in South Los Angeles. The same restaurants are permissible if part of a strip mall, but Perry wanted to “give grocery store[s] and housing combination[s] a chance to come in” on stand-alone plots of land (Michaelson). As of 2011, Californian chain restaurants are required to provide nutrition labeling on menus. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health estimated 10% of “customers informed by labeling would reduce their orders by 100 calories” (Vallianatos 192), which is no small feat. In 2012, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council launched the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network, which trains small and mid-size neighborhood markets “to operate as healthy food retailers in communities of need” (goodfoodla.org). It also rates food retailers on a “tiered, points-based scoring system” called the Good Food Purchasing Pledge, according to their regard for environmental sustainability, animal welfare, workers’ rights, and nutrition (goodfoodla.org). These have been admirable efforts by the city of Los Angeles, and I think increasing public awareness on food injustice can only serve to further its efforts.
Los Angeles has a thriving food truck culture with thousands of vendors, including “one taco truck for every square mile of land” (Wang, Ku et al. 78). Food trucks range from being transient and able to “move quickly among lower-density locations to serve a diverse mix of needs” to semi-permanent with “the location memory of a fixed restaurant” (Wang, Ku et al. 78). These trucks serve a variety of customers, from day laborers at construction sites to nighttime club-goers to children after school near their campuses. Since buying from food trucks is already a habit for so many, I believe it could be very feasible for LA to emulate New York City’s Green Cart Program. Green Carts are “mobile food carts that offer fresh produce in New York City neighborhoods with limited access to healthy foods” (nyc.gov) and the City issues 500 new cart permits a year only to vendors who agree to be Green Carts. Los Angeles could follow suit, or alternately give “permits to existing unlicensed vendors who sell healthy items, thereby providing healthy food vendors with some legal recognition” (Vallianatos 197).
I also propose schools in South Los Angeles implement an “edible education” of sorts. Teaching students to cultivate a school garden, then harvesting the fresh fruits and vegetables for their lunches, could be an invaluable way to both bring more nutrition into their diets and empower them to “address the issues of poverty and food injustice in their own lives” (Eden 18). As Eden found in the South LA high school where she taught, “bringing food issues into the classroom turned out to be a recipe for success” (Eden 19). After a year of working in their community garden and reading related materials, many of her students “took ownership of [social issues] in their own ways…[and] were newly aware of the multiple decisions and agents that impact the food they put into their bodies” (Eden 21).
Alice Waters, the renowned chef of Chez Panisse and an innovator of farm-to-table cuisine, helped launch a school garden and chicken coop at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA. The garden has provided lunches and lessons for over 7,000 students since its start. In Waters’s article, “Want to Teach Democracy? Improve School Lunches” for the Huffington Post, she argues that incorporating “classroom instruction, school lunch, cooking and gardening into the studies of math, science, history and reading” fosters “responsibility, sharing and stewardship” (Waters). In short, an edible education equally nourishes students’ bodies and their sense of citizenship. Waters holds that the school garden, “like the town square, can and should be the place where we plant…the values that guide our democracy” (Waters).
HOW CAN USC STUDENTS UNIQUELY CONTRIBUTE?
An educational undertaking like a school garden in the heart of Los Angeles needs a space and volunteers. With over a dozen LAUSD schools in walking distance of USC campus, USC students have many opportunities to mentor and tutor students in their community. For-credit programs like JEP as well as student organizations like Troy Camp, Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, Youth Exploring Passion, and SCience Outreach regularly work with LAUSD students of all ages. We have a talented pipeline at USC of passionate, involved students who enjoy interacting with and teaching younger students. It would be ideal for school gardens to be located on their respective schools’ campuses, though that is not always possible. The USC Urban Garden is a community garden on USC-owned property located to the north of campus, on Shrine Place, and would make an excellent location for a school garden. It is within ten minutes’ walking distance to several schools, like 32nd Street School and Vermont Elementary School, so teachers could take even younger students in a group to the site.
WHY SHOULD USC STUDENTS HELP?
We as USC students should contribute to the food justice effort for several reasons. Yes, it would help to heal our broken industrialized food system and make a difference in the lives of deserving children, but also the process of working in a school garden may make ourselves more liberated and empowered. According to Michael Pollan in his book Cooked, “the rise of fast food and the decline in home cooking” poses a problem for not onlyfor “the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land” (Pollan 6), as many other food activists will conventionally claim, but also for our understanding of how “cooking implements us in a whole web of social and ecological relationships” (Pollan 18). The average American spends “less time cooking than people in any other nation”—a meager 27 minutes per day (Pollan 2)—and even less time cultivating their own produce. Techniques of food preparation that were once commonplace are now “‘extreme’ forms of cookery” that most Americans will likely never attempt to make on their own, like cheese or beer (Pollan 11). Michael Pollan argues that, far from becoming freer by consuming cheap, packaged foods, we’ve become more dependent on corporations and vulnerable to their interests. With the loss of power comes the loss of the knowledge—but volunteering in an urban school garden could return to us some of that power.
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