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Where Are L.A.'s Food Deserts?

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Joshua Tree | Photo: atomische/Flickr/Creative Commons License

When stats are released about the nation's ever-worsening health crisis and the growing rates of obesity and diabetes, it's easy to cast blame in the direction of the victims.

How can these people be so bad to their bodies? How can they be so ignorant when we live in a country with so much readily-available information about health, in a city that's chock-full of grocery stores, in an era that sees new farmers' markets sprouting up every other week? It seems as if any excuses a person has for eating poorly (too much work to get done, don't know how to cook, too expensive, etc.) are just disguises for laziness.

But if any of those thoughts go through your mind when you read a health-related stat, odds are very good you don't live in one of the city's many "food deserts."

Food desert is a term that, according to the Wikipedia page on the subject, was coined during the mid-1990s in the U.K. What was happening during that time period was people were beginning to pack up their belongings from the urban centers and move out into the suburbs. (It was an echo of the American exodus from metropolitan areas following World War II.) And one of the results of fewer people living in cities was that grocery stores began to shut down -- if there are no customers, there are no stores -- leaving large numbers of folks without easy access to fresh foods. In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, they'd have to travel further and further away from their home until, at some point, it simply became unreasonable to do so, causing their diets to suffer in the process.

Since that time, the definition's expanded to include more than simply physical access to a supermarket. A food desert can mean an area that's physically without one, or it can mean that the area has a lack of:

(1) Financial access, meaning the stores in the area are priced out of what the average resident can afford;
(2) "Mental attitude," meaning the consumer simply doesn't have the knowledge of what's good or bad for them.

Food deserts, thusly, can have plenty of places to literally obtain food. But the only food is from McDonald's, Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box; those mom-and-pop shops that have nothing but beer, potato chips and cheap buckets of ice cream; and bars. All are options to keep a person from keeling over and dying (unlike, say, the lack of food options in the Mojave Desert which, yes, technically is also a food desert), but there's also a huge lack of being able to obtain the necessary ingredients that compose a healthy diet.

Which brings us to L.A.

Recently, the USDA put together a searchable map of the country's various food deserts. This is what happens when you enter "Los Angeles, CA" into it:

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In this map, green is not good: Those are the city's food deserts.

As you'd expect, they're nonexistent in the "better" areas of the city (the west side, West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz are all green-less), while the poorer areas (Inglewood, Compton, Bell, parts of SGV) have plenty of green hanging around. And those areas are also, unsurprisingly, where the county's obesity rates seem to spike.

Gosh, who would have guessed that it's harder to maintain a healthy diet in places where healthy foods are hard to get?

So maybe next time stats are released about the state of our country's health, the question shouldn't be how they can allow this to happen to themselves, but instead how we can allow this to happen in our own backyards.

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