The Surprising Solution to Urban Food Deserts (Hint: It’s Not More Supermarkets)

Countless Americans live in so-called food deserts, but farming and farmers markets might be a better option than a new big box store.

Urban gardens and farmers markets can make a huge dent in the problem of food deserts. (Photo: John Rensten/Getty Images)
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Angular patches of pink dot a map of Los Angeles. Except for a few splotches in the San Fernando Valley, the pastel areas appear far from the famed hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Instead, they hover over more infamous locales, cities and neighborhoods such as Inglewood, Long Beach, and Compton.

Each represents a food desert—“ a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet,” per the United States Department of Agriculture—and to judge by the broad stretches of city that aren’t shaded pink on the USDA map, food-access issues in Los Angeles are isolated in South L.A. Considering that the two largest swaths of designated food deserts are where the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are located—the countless channels and docks where tens of thousands of employees work, but where only about 1,000 people are actually living with low access—the map can give the impression that this isn’t a systemic problem.

The reality on the ground would suggest otherwise.

Liquor stores and corner markets, long on booze, soda, and packaged goods—and very, very short on fresh vegetables—are the primary food retailers. And there are so many fast-food restaurants in some of these neighborhoods that the Los Angeles City Council passed a yearlong moratorium on the opening of new chain locations in 2008 and tightened restrictions enacted in 2011 make it nearly impossible for a new McDonald’s or El Pollo Loco to open in the area. 

In Compton, home to 14,678 people with low food access, according to the USDA, there is a mere 1.1 square feet of grocery store per resident. Only 15 percent of the city’s 97,156 residents are suffering the ills of a food desert, but the overall availability of food is far less than in neighboring cities. Los Angeles, with its broad economic diversity, has an average of two square feet of grocery store per resident, according to the California FreshWorks Fund, while Santa Monica has three square feet per resident.

Although Compton and the surrounding areas might not be wholly parched, food justice remains an unrealized concept for many citizens of designated deserts and other areas alike. This year, however, a number of new efforts, spearheaded by people with roots in Compton, promise both to raise awareness of food-access issues and to make healthy foods more readily available to residents. If the Heritage Education Group farmers market and Make a Green Noise are able to make a significant impact, it could mark the beginning of the end of an entrenched state of inequality that has plagued Compton and the rest of South L.A. for nearly 50 years.  

What would you do if this was this only source of food for miles around? (Photo: Getty Images)

A resident of a public housing project in Scotland was supposedly the first person to refer to a neighborhood as a “food desert.” The utterance occurred in the early 1990s, and while there aren’t any details about who the person was or even what town he or she lived in, the evocative term stuck. In 1995, it appeared in a British government document produced by Prime Minister John Major’s Nutrition Task Force, and from that point on, the poetic observation of one Scot grew into the strictly defined term used to “assess differential accessibility to healthy and affordable food between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged areas.”

That’s how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the term in its comprehensive 2009 report, “A Systematic Review of Food Deserts, 1966–2007,” which looks at the issue of food access across the country, in rural and urban areas alike. As the title implies, the problem of food access is much older than the term itself. In the patchwork of neighborhoods, cities and unincorporated areas that is greater South Los Angeles, the contemporary state of officially designated food deserts and areas with limited access to grocery stores and other retail outlets reverberate from an event that took place in 1965: the Watts riots.

Food-related issues are barely mentioned in Violence in the City—an End or a Beginning?, the 101-page report compiled at the behest of then Gov. Pat Brown that examined the causes and potential long-term effects of the riots. But the exodus of retailers from areas affected by the civil unrest left a huge swath of L.A. woefully underserved. As Mike Davis writes in his history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, the flight of large retailers and the closure of small, locally owned businesses due to “discriminatory bank ‘redlining’ practices” resulted in a situation in which “half a million Black and Latino shoppers were forced to commute to distant regional malls or bordering white areas even for ordinary grocery and prescription shopping.”

A shopping center didn’t open in South Los Angeles for another 18 years.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center in Watts was built more like an embassy than like a retail outlet. According to the essay “Securing Shopping Center for Inner Cities,” published in the journal Urban Land in 1987 (and quoted in City of Quartz), the King center was surrounded by an “eight-foot-high, wrought-iron fence comparable to security fences found at the perimeters of private estate and exclusive residential communities.” An Urban Land Institute project reference file from 1987 notes that the security system “attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice as a model for innercity shopping centers.”

RELATED: Virtual Supermarket Delivers Groceries to Food Deserts

The siege mentality and general climate of fear on the behalf of businesses carried on through the 1990s, bolstered by the real violence and damage of the Rodney King riots in 1992 and the perceived threat of South L.A.’s cultural output: the films of John Singleton, the music of N.W.A. In 1995, Rebuild L.A., a group that formed in the wake of the ’92 riots, found that stores in South L.A. served 16,571 people, while a supermarket in greater Los Angeles catered to 7,795 people.

Despite efforts by nonprofit groups, Los Angeles County, and various city governments (South L.A. is a patchwork of self-governing cities, L.A. neighborhoods, and unincorporated areas governed by the county Board of Supervisors), by 2010 the area had only a net gain of five full-service grocery stores, according to a report published by Community Health Councils, Inc.

A better solution than supermarkets? (Photo: Getty Images)

“Some people may look at farmers markets as a way of bringing the community together. Other people may look at a farmers market as a money-generating operation in the community,” says Bing Turner, a Compton native who is working toward a Ph.D. in public health at Claremont University.

Turner’s Heritage Education Group is opening a farmers market at a hospital in an unincorporated area that borders on Compton at the end of March. But unlike community- and business-geared markets in other parts of L.A., where gem-like lettuces sell for $5 and every other patron has a yoga mat slung over her shoulder, Turner sees the market in markedly different terms: “We look at it as an intervention strategy. It’s a public-health intervention strategy.”

One that Compton is desperately in need of, according to Turner. He points to the obesity rates in the city as evidence: 37 percent of adults were medically obese in 2009. In East Compton, that rate approached 40 percent.

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Working with the office of county Sup. Mark Ridley-Thomas and a $5,100 grant from the FreshWorks Fund, the Heritage Education Group’s efforts are symptomatic of a new approach to food justice in Compton. The days of attempting to lure chains like Vons or Albertson’s are waning, and state and local governments are putting funds behind alternative projects like farmers markets and community gardens.

“As long as there’s additional access, that’s what we’re really working toward,” says Catherine Howard, program manager of the fund. And nutrition—not just access—is increasingly part of the conversation.

The fund still works to expand access to healthy foods in low- and moderate-income communities by engaging with independent grocery chains, but Howard says that some of the capital is earmarked for alternative projects too. In addition to supporting traditional, stationary farmers markets, she says the fund is looking into mobile markets to serve less densely populated areas.

Make a Green Noise, a nonprofit started last year by Rhonda Webb and Rushelli Luna, who also has roots in Compton, in the very same neighborhood Turner grew up in, is addressing those more sparsely populated areas of the city through a lens of food justice and education.

“We’re working with the city of Compton to get as many properties, abandoned lots, where we can clean up the place, clean up the blight of the areas, and move in to do something with those blighted areas,” says Luna, who handles the development side of the nonprofit.

The first property the city turned over to the women is now covered with a grid of raised beds filled with herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, and California-native flowers.

“It was, prior to this, it was a liquor store,” say Luna of the property. “Before that there was a church, a liquor store, and a swap meet on the same piece of land.”

Whereas Turner is focusing primary on retail access, Luna says that Make a Green Noise wants to address what it perceives as a gap in education and familiarity.

“I have identified a few food banks and places where people can go and get free produce on any given day. But a lot of people don’t know what to do with an eggplant.”

Gardening workshops, tree giveaways, and other community events built around the garden—one in collaboration with the Heritage Education Group—have helped Make a Green Noise build momentum and, hopefully, convince the city or private landowners to invite it onto other properties. Its lease on the current plot ends in two months, and while Luna says it can request a six-month extension, she’s not too attached to any one abandoned lot.

“Our whole goal is to look at blighted areas, remove the blight, and put something in that the community can use,” she says. “And once someone is interested in developing that area, we want to be able to move out. Our whole concept is a kind of mobile garden type of concept.”

Heritage has done a bit of hopping around too. Turner initially tried to work with the city to bring a market to Compton proper, but he says the local government dragged its feet on the idea. He partnered with the Compton Unified School District, briefly opening a market at a middle school in one of the designated food deserts, but that fizzled as well.

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Speaking with Turner, you get the impression that he would prefer a more symbolic site than the hospital—one located in the city, located in an area where people are in the most need of access to fresh, healthy foods.

“We really want to be in the trenches, to be embedded into the community,” he says of the relationship between the market and the city he envisions.

But with a location secured and a good working relationship with the hospital and the county supervisor in place, Turner’s attention is on planning the market itself. For the public health student, that doesn’t just mean bringing nutritious food to Compton—it has to be affordable too.

“You aren’t going to find anything that’s not closely related to health and wellness,” Turner says of the vendors he’s lining up. There will be three produce stalls for every food vendor, and those selling meals are required to have a healthy, organic option. Want to sling hamburgers at the Heritage market? You’ll have to make room for veggie burgers on the grill too.

He’s also hoping to replicate the affordability program Heritage has at its Rancho Cucamonga markets, a matching fund called Double Bucks that is financed with money from San Bernardino’s First Five program and the United Way. To enroll, “the community member attends a workshop and learns about health, wellness, and diet, about how to eat well, about cholesterol and diabetes,” Turner says.

Combined with federal food-assistance money, shopping for seasonal vegetables and healthy foods at the Heritage market could be less expensive than even the cheapest fast-food options in Compton. “Essentially,” Turner says of the Rancho Cucamonga model, “you can buy $20 worth of groceries—$10 using EBT, $10 using your Veggie Bucks, and you don’t have to come out of pocket for anything.”

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