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A Conversation on Food Policy and Access in Northeast Los Angeles

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The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website

Last Saturday, the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative held its second community engagement workshop at the Elysian Valley community garden, a part of a summer series of workshops revolving around economic and workforce development and sustainability. The day's activities and discussions with the community approached food access within the study area, such as where and how far residents go to shop for food.

We spoke with Sharon Cech of Occidental College's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) who led the day's events:

Justin: What is the UEPI?

Sharon: The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College (UEPI) is a research and advocacy organization dedicated to creating a more just, livable, and green society through program work in food systems, the built environment, and transportation. I work on the Regional Food Systems program, which explores strategies to "scale up" the operations of small farmers in the region, and also focuses on building connections that will bring quality affordable foods to retailers and institutions in underserved communities.

Can you tell us about the food engagement meeting last Saturday?

UEPI wanted to hold an event that would actively engage community members and bring attention to their food environment, from how fruits and vegetables are grown in the garden, to how they taste, to where residents typically shop for fresh healthy foods.

In the Elysian Valley Community Garden, we set up three activity stations for attendees to cycle through. The first was a "garden learning" station, providing a gardening demonstration and lesson on the connections between an urban garden plot and the larger food system. The second was a "taste test" station, where attendees could taste and compare six different varieties of garden-fresh tomatoes to learn about the diversity of varieties and hopefully try something new. And finally, the third was a "food mapping" station where attendees plotted the types and locations of the places that they purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. This exercise was designed to both collect data and create a visual food map of the NELA area.

What was the objective of the food engagement meeting?

The primary objective of the event was to get residents thinking about their food environment and how they would like to see it develop in the future, particularly with regards to the availability of healthy food options. We also wanted to gather some information on where residents are currently purchasing their fresh fruits and vegetables, to get a sense of the overarching trends and where there might be gaps.


What is food policy and how can it benefit residents in the NELA study area?
Food policy refers to any type of public policy that has to do with the food system, which includes how food is produced, transported, purchased, and consumed. Food policies collectively influence our food environments, or the food that is available in a given neighborhood or community. Food policy in NELA has the potential to determine the types of foods that are available and where they can be found. For example, policies could provide incentives for retailers to carry more fresh fruits and vegetables, or increase the availability of healthy food in schools.

What were some observations or insights resulting from the engagement meeting?

Overall, it was great to see so many community members involved in activities about the food environment. At the food mapping station (where I was located), we found that the majority of attendees get their produce from grocery stores or farmers' markets, and many of them currently travel outside of the NELA area to make these purchases.


What factors explain inadequate food access, and what can be done to improve it within the NELA study area?

The primary one is poverty and a lack of funds to buy food. However, this is often compounded by food environments that are saturated with fast food restaurants and offer few grocery stores or other options for purchasing fresh healthy foods. In these areas, often termed "food deserts," the most affordable and abundant food options are unhealthy ones, so many residents end up consuming disproportionate amounts of unhealthy foods, which in turn can lead to life-threatening diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

The best way to mitigate these problems is to move toward a food environment that offers an abundance of affordable, culturally appropriate, and healthy food options. This can involve anything from advocating for more full service grocery stores, to encouraging small retailers to offer healthy options, to the implementation of programs that incentivize shopping at farmers markets (for example, by doubling the value of dollars spent there), to the creation of community gardens.

How can we improve our community's food ecology, such as access, affordability, and health?

In general, there are a variety of actions that individuals can take, from starting a garden to organizing with neighbors to achieve larger-scale policy changes. The NELA project and resident surveys provide an opportunity for residents to give input on their current food environment, including changes that they would like to see. The data collected throughout the project will be used to document demand and what residents want "food in their neighborhood to be," which can then inform policy recommendations.

How can community gardens benefit a community?

Community gardens have a wide range of benefits. While they provide an excellent source of fresh nutritious food, they can also create a strengthened sense of community, and have even been shown to reduce crime. Gardening is also a form of moderate exercise, which is particularly important in populations at high risk for diet-related illnesses. Gardening can also be used as an interactive way of teaching a range of subjects to children and youth such as math, science, art, and even business.

What are you looking to explore and followup on after this engagement meeting?

In UEPI's work on the NELA Collaborative, we are exploring the possibility of creating a "food hub" in the NELA area that would connect small-scale farmers from surrounding agricultural regions with local wholesale markets and institutions that can provide increased access to fresh healthy foods throughout the community. Residents' feedback from the food mapping activity (along with resident surveys) will influence the types of businesses that we outreach to and engage as prospective food hub partners.


Photos by Jue Wang and Justin Cram

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