For over the past four years, a ban's been in place for the South L.A. area that's been ostensibly trying to save people's lives. And now it may be coming to an end.
After numerous scare stats were released for the area back in 2008, including that 30% of South L.A. residents are considered obese, and a whopping 11.7% have diabetes (both well above the average rates for the nation and the city), L.A. stepped in and issued a moratorium on new fast food franchises opening within the 32-square-mile part of town encompassing West Adams, Baldwin Village and Leimart Park. The goal of the ban was to give restaurants and grocery stores offering fresher, healthier items a chance to flourish in the area, thus giving residents more options when shopping for food. But it was announced recently that a new proposed Community Plan for the area will lift the restrictions and allow a new influx of fast food restaurants in the area. (No decision has yet been reached on the proposal.)
Health advocates are alarmed that if it goes through, the section of L.A. that's already been hit hardest by food-related health epidemics will only get worse. As UCLA School of Public Health professor William McCarthy told CBS, "We know that in neighborhoods were you have access to more full-service grocery stories and to sit-down restaurants, you can have a higher proportion of your calories come from fruits and vegetables." And if you don't? If your only options for food are liquor stores and drive-thrus -- as is the case in the South L.A. area, one of L.A.'s "food deserts" according to the USDA -- chances are a large percentage of your caloric intake is not coming from healthy items.
At least, that's been the prevailing theory regarding food deserts and a person's diet. New research seems to dispute that, suggesting that a food desert does not directly dictate a consumer's choices, with research indicating that "shopping patterns are weakly related, if at all, to neighborhoods in the United States because of access to motorized transportation." But the same article makes the following point, which once again sums up the difficulty of maintaining a healthy diet when there are no healthy options around:
But the number of fast-food outlets within three miles of home was associated with eating more fast food, fried potatoes and caloric soft drinks, and with less frequent consumption of produce, the researchers said. And they found that the number of large supermarkets within 1.5 miles and three miles of home was associated with drinking fewer caloric soft drinks.
The first commenter at the end of the linked L.A. Times article sums up the opinion of some who don't believe there really is a way to "fix" a food desert:
So-called "food deserts" are created by LACK OF A DEMAND for healthy foods. Economics 101. But you can't expect those who try to tell "at-risk" populations how to live their lives would understand that.
But that kind of sentiment veers a bit too close to victim-blaming to be productive.
Food deserts are a chicken-and-egg problem. Humans need to be educated about how to eat properly, there's no doubt about that. If they aren't getting that education, they won't be demanding healthier options from their neighborhood or giving that new "fresh" grocery store a chance. And if they aren't demanding produce, "fresh" stores will stop opening up there because it's simply not a viable business option. And if there are no healthy options, people will just continue frequenting the fast food franchises, leading to a continuing proliferation of them, leading to fewer grocery stores (and the opportunities they provide), and the cycle just goes ahead and starts over.
Which is to say, to fix the problem, the cycle must be broken.
One possibility is through government-based incentives. L.A. tried this kind of thing back in 2008, offering a series of tax breaks and money for facade improvement if someone was attempting to open a grocery store, sit-down restaurant, or produce market in South L.A. Unfortunately, this plan was met with little success, as evidenced by the lack of progress now, four-plus years later. More recently instituted incentive-laced programs in other states may offer a glimpse at the solution -- for example, a plan in Kansas to offer incentives to cover almost half of the $16.5 million price tag needed to open a Natural Grocers grocery store in the city of Shawnee -- but it's a bit too early to say these policies are slam dunks.
Leaving it up to the government, though, is not the only course of action. Perhaps what's needed, instead, is for a citizen to take the example of Wendell Pierce, the actor who played Bunk in "The Wire," who has started his own chain of grocery stores in the most impoverished areas of New Orleans. While opening grocery stores in poor areas doesn't seem like the best business decision, as Pierce explains, "In difficult economic times, always invest in food. That's the one thing we can't go without. People have to eat, or they die."
So: Which philanthropy-minded multi-millionaire living out in Malibu or Beverly Hills wants to step up and be L.A.'s Wendell Pierce?