Los Angeles Is Still Full of Food Deserts

If you've ever spent time looking for an apartment, you probably know Walk Score. It's a website that rates the walkability of a certain address, using an algorithm that determines how many everyday activities (i.e., grocery trips, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.) someone who lives at that specific place can perform without using a car. As such, downtown L.A. is considered a "Walker's Paradise" with a score of 97 due to the ample public transportation options available. Burbank, on the other hand, is only "Somewhat Walkable" with a depressing score of 66.

But the folks at the site realized they could use that information in another, possibly even more helpful, way as well. Instead of looking at all the categories, they focused on what areas have the best (and worst) access to fresh food, essentially pointing out the country's food deserts.

As you may expect, L.A. has quite a few.

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First, a bit about their methodology. To come up with the "food desert" score, they calculated the percentage of people in a city that can walk from their home to a grocery store in five minutes. This, of course, is a pretty strict standard. (Even New York, the city with the best access to food, only has 72% of its population living within these conditions; San Francisco, second place and another city known for being a walker's dream, only has 59% of people living like this.) But still, the definition is legitimate seeing as all of the cities are playing by the same rules.

Where does L.A. fit in? Way down at number 11, with a scant 36% of its population living within a five-minute walk of a grocery store.

So, how do we fix the problem?

1. Don't Just Stop At Grocery Stores

Logistically, if you want to expand the access to fresh food, you should start by putting in more grocery stores. That only makes sense. However, this isn't the most workable of solutions if you consider that people are generally creatures of habit. Introduce something new, and it takes time to adjust. (I hit on this concept a bit when talking about the classist problem of the "real food diet.".) And if consumers don't adapt to new offerings, the stores will make sure that the offerings quickly go bye-bye and be replaced by something more profitable.

So instead of just focusing on getting more fresh food in stores, there needs to be a move towards more serious food education. This means holding free classes in community centers, posting recipes in stores, and some entrepreneurial Angeleno taking the initiative to institute a program similar to New Mexico's mobile grocery store MoGro, tweaking it so that instead of just delivering groceries, it also delivers knowledge about what to do with those groceries.

2. A City-Led Expansion of Community Gardens

Another of the commonly-prescribed methods to eradicate food deserts is the construction of community gardens, as this will not only provide the residents with more readily-available fresh food, but also make them invested with its production. The only stumbling block with this idea is that someone actually has to volunteer to do all the work. As you can imagine, this is a pretty big stumbling block.

For a city run by a mayor who grows his own food, there's no excuse for the government not to step in and help. Use a portion of the budget to hire a group to create and tend to gardens in the most blighted areas. Change whatever zoning laws need to be changed to promote grassroots efforts. The Governor's on board with trying to promote urban agriculture, it's time for the city of L.A. to take the next step.

3. Small Innovations

A student over at Ohio State University trying to solve the problem of food deserts in his community came up with a brilliant idea. If people could transport their bikes on buses, he thought, why not groceries? So, he proposed the installation of bus-mounted bins that would allow people who have to rely on public transportation when they go grocery shopping to make their trips easier. This is just one example of a simple, small idea that could help.

Which is to say: Not all of the ideas have to be huge all-encompassing programs. If you're a teacher, have your students consider the problem and spitball some ideas. If you live near a food desert, use your knowledge of the area to come up with a small-scale solution on your own. Sometimes the smallest tweaks have the biggest impact.

Because the food desert problem isn't one with an easy solution sitting out there waiting for us. It's a complex problem that needs to be attacked from every possible angle by every possible person.

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