Improving Nutritional Outcomes in the City of Dreams

Los Angeles: home to the fifteen dollar pressed juice, empire of Kalerribean smoothies, motherland of kombucha. The food culture of the city is certainly cultivated in a way to promote the health and beauty of its residents who strive to set the standards of health and beauty. But beneath the facade of the City of Dreams lies a nightmare for the 1.2 million Angelenos living in food insecurity (LA public Health Report). In Los Angeles County, approximately 17% of residents are food insecure, with seniors and children in particular being most at risk. In fact, a study found that out of all cities in the United States, Los Angeles has the largest population of food-insecure children, with a whopping one in four children unable to find enough to eat (Goldberg). The problem is exacerbated in the low income neighborhoods in South LA and East LA, where the lack of fresh produce and dense concentration of fast food chains has deemed both regions as food deserts and food swamps (Warshawsky). While hunger and malnutrition would be considered troubling social issues on their own, research finds strong links between food insecurity and countless other afflictions, including increased odds of hospitalization among children, greater prevalence of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents, and increased levels of stress and depression in women. Furthermore, people with limited money that are forced to choose between purchasing food or medicine may suffer exacerbated effects of their existing medical conditions (LA health report). This epidemic is a rumble in Los Angeles’ belly that it can not afford to ignore. Nevertheless, the government is trying its best to turn the other cheek.

Efforts to ameliorate the food gap in Los Angeles have largely been taken up by civil society organizations (CSO’s) that gain funding through donors, faith groups, and grants. However, considering the public officials Los Angeles County tout their commitment to welfare and their “many programs to protect, maintain and improve the health and mental health of its residents,” (LA County Website)  it certainly could put in some overtime. In areas like urban planning and education, two spaces in which the government has space to affect change, the city of Los Angeles has greatly dropped the ball in its efforts to fulfill the basic health needs of its citizens. The numbers of hungry residents have risen to such devastating amounts that it is impossible for the city not to acknowledge that not enough is being done. To what extent, then, are existing government efforts affecting or ameliorating the food insecurity crisis in Los Angeles, and why does it persist? Through investigation of current initiatives and an assessment of each’s impact, I have found that the persistence of hunger and malnutrition is largely due to the government’s framing of the issue as a simplistic problem with simplistic solutions, its failure to address the underlying mindset perpetuating LA’s food culture, and its neglect of acknowledging a peripheral yet powerful byproduct of this food culture— monumental food waste.

For the purpose of consistency, food security will henceforth be defined under the terms of The American Institute of Nutrition, as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” This includes not only the requisite of nutritious, safe foods on shelves nearby to these people, but also means to acquire them in socially acceptable ways. This terminology, I suppose, clearly draws a distinction between living near dumpsters of high end vegan markets and living in a place where such products are financially feasible. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies these food insecure households as either coping with “low food security” or “very low food security,” which distinguishes between “diets with reduced quality, variety, or desirability” and “diets with disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” respectively (LA Public Health Report).

To begin with, the city Los Angeles faults by constructing simplistic policy to address food security, a highly complex byproduct of the social, racial, and economic makeup of the city. For several years, Los Angeles’ efforts in promoting better nutritional outcomes for its residents have been limited to opening more grocers and supermarkets with a produce section in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. On the surface, this would seem like the sensible solution to combating food insecurity. After all, if food security is defined as safe and socially acceptable access to nutritional foods, putting them in an aisle seems like the easy, breezy antidote. On the contrary, a study conducted by RAND Corporation revealed that there was virtually no link between the type of food and drinks that Los Angeles County adults consume and the proximity of fast-food outlets, grocery stores and convenience stores to their homes, and adjusting these variables actually bore no increase of food security for its residents. This, upon further thought, proves more logical than the formerly held belief. For one thing, putting a Whole Foods in the center of Downtown Los Angeles and hoping that it enables healthy shopping is just as ineffective as putting a SoulCycle on Skid Row and expecting a slew of enthused bikers lining at the door. Lining streets with amenities of a different class is the flawed logic of believing gentrification benefits everyone. Replacing existing food supplies with upscale, expensive fruits and vegetables, conversely, may push more consumers into big fast food establishments that are more affordable and familiar than the introduced foods. Richard Sturm, the RAND researcher that spearheaded the study, submits that the food environment is not that important to the fate of a city’s food security, especially in a highly mobile society such as Los Angeles, where the city is spread out and people travel great lengths every day (RAND). Additionally, the plan failed to realize that such supermarkets offer unhealthy, processed foods and snacks in equal abundance. RAND researcher Strum showed that the cheaper, high caloric foods like chips and instant noodles, were more heavily marketed and thus more in line with consumer knowledge. In another example of misguided well intent, Los Angeles rolled out an ordinance in 2007 that prohibited new fast food chains from opening in the city of Los Angeles. Strangely, a study published in 2015 found that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance (RAND). The reason for this uptick is unclear, but one fact remains true: attaining food security and promoting health are complicated steps with no easy solution. Other programs that focus on actually providing free nutritional meals to needing families are proven more effective at providing food security, but exacerbate a system of unsustainable dependence. The LA Regional Food Bank, which works with 680 local agencies to feed 280,000 people in Los Angeles each month, is undoubtedly impactful in their efforts to ameliorate hunger. However, despite having the facilities and the volunteers willing to distribute food, the LA Regional Food Bank reports that 41% of its partner agencies reported not having enough food to meet the demand and 43% reported turning people away because they ran out of food (LA Public Health.) In another example, the Summer Meals program offers meals during the summer for students ages 18 and under who depend on the reduced price or free lunches offered during the school year to secure a balanced meal in their daily diet. Efforts like these, though immeasurably impactful, depend heavily on donations that can’t be promised with each coming year. Generally speaking, with initiatives like the Food Bank and Summer Meals, one sees that government programs are geared to flail at the branches of food insecurity, while none are constructed to identify the source at the root.

This root, this fundamental issue that keeps stomachs empty even if shelves are full, is the issue of education. The truth is, 12 percent of the food insecure people in Los Angeles are living above the poverty line, according to Feeding America (Goldberg). This speaks to two findings. First, the cost of living in Los Angeles is unmaintainable for many residents, even those making enough to pass over the line. Secondly, and more importantly, it shows that it would be naive to say that the lack of nutritious foods in diets is strictly a financial issue. Sure, LACHS results indicate that food insecurity increases as household income decreases. Sure, food insecurity is a greater issue among populations that are unemployed. Sure, food insecurity disproportionally impacts African American adults, a demographic with a longstanding history of being socioeconomically disadvantaged in the United States. On the other hand, a look at the data also reveals a prevalence in food insecurity among those who are not U.S. citizens and those with less than a high school education (LA Public Health).

Let’s look at those separately. Firstly, food insecurity among non-U.S. citizens hints at nutritional outcomes being tied to cultural barriers. A family from an ethnicity and a culture tied closely to its food may be predisposed against the introduction to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day that may be atypical in their traditional diet. As an Egyptian who was raised on heavy plates (and seconds, and thirds…) of buttery meats, rice, and bread, the taste I have developed for acai bowls and sugar snap peas since I moved to California continues to raise the eyebrows of my family back in the motherland. Secondly, the prevalence in food insecurity among those with lower degrees in schooling may indicate that malnutrition is, at its core, an education issue. The point of origin in this problem can be seen in the poor eating habits that are seen in children in low income parts of Los Angeles. Two in five children in the county are categorized as being an unhealthy weight, which is often a result of eating an unhealthy breakfast or skipping it altogether. The obesity epidemic produces a snowball effect for a myriad of other problems, including higher school absenteeism, poorer academic performance, increased disciplinary problems, lower graduation rates and poorer health (Business Wire). In an effort to enforce a healthy start, school districts around the county introduced the free and reduced School Breakfast Program, which provides every eligible student with USDA approved breakfast and lunches. Despite this fact, 742,000 low-income children across Los Angeles County do not participate. As a consequence, school districts in Los Angeles County miss out on more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Business Wire). This tremendous opt out rate could be one of several reasons. Parents may not think it is imperative for their child to eat a nutritious breakfast before class. Also, a group that investigated this disparity found that many children miss out on breakfast because it is served too early in the day for them to capitalize on the meal. Such an obstacle is more difficult for children of parents who work or do not have the means to accommodate around the meals. Finally, the same group found that children feel too ashamed to admit in front of their classmates that they need the free meal. The kids that leave the food untouched, then, leave school districts in Los Angeles County ineligible for more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Goldberg). Ultimately, all these facts point to the larger issue at hand — that misinformation, stigma, and cultural differences all feed into a broken food culture that makes it hard for progressive food reform to stick. Current government effort to offer nutritional information as food for thought are grossly misguided and out of touch with the demographic at hand. To make it easier to measure household food waste and overall health statistics of consumption, Roe and other researchers are developing a smartphone app with Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Ramkumar). With this app, the researchers hope that food insecure residents of Los Angeles can educate themselves on the caloric intake and disposal that happens under their roofs. Such an attempt to keep the information accessible yet trendy is seemingly blind to the possibility that low income residents below the poverty line would not have an iPhone or Android at hand.

Even in places in Los Angeles where people are able to access vegetables, most are left being pushed around on peoples plates before being dumped into the landfills. Out of the 2.9 million tons of waste Los Angeles feeds to landfill sites, 28% is comprised food waste. That is 815,000 pounds of scraps of food, much of which is edible and fresh days after it is thrown away (warshawsky). The sites of food waste are aplenty and start from the minute farmers plant seeds into the ground. Due to overestimated supermarket demand, farmers feel pressured to produce tons more produce than is actually ultimately harvest, in order to protect against potential damages of unforeseen circumstances that prevent them from reaching the quotas of their clients. In this stage, the loss is classified as “food losses and spoilage.” The scene of food waste happens in the shelves of supermarkets and cabinets. Researches from the firm SSRS looked into this point of food loss, and found that in a simple of consumers, almost 70 percent threw items away once the package date on the foods expired, in the interest of protecting themselves from food borne illness. This would be well and good if the labels on milk, meats, and vegetables were tested and certified. In actuality, a closer look revealed that package dates are largely arbitrary and determined by some eyeballing on the supermarket end. It makes perfect sense as to why a grocer would overshoot the date the food goes sour, of course: the sooner the foods expire, the sooner Angelenos throw out the “decaying” goods and come back to buy another batch. Almost 60 percent said food waste is necessary to ensure that meals are fresh and flavorful (Bloomberg).

The current structure limits Los Angeles’ ability to implement changes, but leaves much room for the local government to step in. (Warshawsky). In its place, CSOs have implemented many programs that attempt to redirect surplus produce to hungry mouths through food banks and redistribution channels, like the program Food Forward. The fundamental obstacles with these plans, however, is that CSOs can not be certain of their financial support long term. The instability of their funds and operations thus compromise their mission and exacerbates their need for government support. The mass disposal of foods is also largely due to what is commonly called the “Wild West” system of Los Angeles waste governance, in which the government leaves food waste services in the hands of private waste companies that operate on a property by property basis. This inefficiency leaves the potential of recycling, composting, and environmental cautiousness by the wayside without oversight of involvement of public services. Additionally, the state of California does the landfill sites no favors with unfathomable laws to distinguish between trash and non-trash produce. According to Alex Helou, “If you have an apple that falls from your garden, you can put it in the green bin. If you eat an apple, the state considers that a food scrap and you’re not supposed to put it in.” Fruit fallen in a backyard is considered plant material and can be processed at green material composting facilities. The same kind of apple bought at an Albertson’s, however, is considered food material and can be processed only at facilities permitted to accept food material. Fortunately, LA County has taken the first steps in implementing a new model in which food waste recycling is a mandatory condition if the private companies want to continue operating (Washawsky). In another attempt, they’ve taken a stab at a curbside food waste pilot program since 2008. Unfortunately, this bore few solid results, with food diversion rates as low as 1-5%. In the sample of all residents familiar with the program, chosen participation is low “due to lack or interest or knowledge in food waste separation, inadequate city incentives or enforcement and lack of permitted facilities to process food waste.” Here, it is once more revealed that throwing money at a problem does nothing without changing the culture surrounding food waste and environmentalism. There is no reason a low income family should feel motivated to sort through trash and decomposing food when it’s framed at an extra task for the vague feel-good benefit of saving the planet.

As aforementioned, none of these programs can ensure success without a makeover of the ideational constructs that surround healthy food — and their expiration dates. Rescuing produce and overcoming paranoia of food borne illness require the ability of a person to look at a fruit or a vegetable and seeing it as not only a foodstuff that is edible, but also one that is nutritious and integral to a healthy lifestyle.

In the interest of painting a balanced picture of the fight against food insecurity, there are several notable projects implemented by Los Angeles County that have been successful at enacting change, as well as some I would suggest for continued progress. To begin, the Market Match program, born in 2009, works to double the benefits for EBT card holders in farmers markets. In other words, those eligible for the program receive a note that offers 10 dollars of credit for every 10 dollars spend on produce in the farmer’s market. The project has been adopted across the region— in fact, 39% of farmers’ markets in Los Angeles County accepted EBT in 2013. With a new grant from the Department of Agriculture,  it is estimated that $1 million in fresh produce will be added to the shopping bags of Southern California’s low-income families over the next two years under this program. In the interest of the 12% of food insecure people that exist over the poverty line, perhaps the benefits of the upcoming rise of minimum wage to $15 by 2020 could help ameliorate food insecurity.  A higher minimum wage per household would enable more consumers to afford more fresh fruits and vegetables and cover the cost of living.

Additionally, the government must identify solutions from the grocer end. As mentioned before, there are private market incentives to shortening the lifespan of fresh produce. However, as well as legal incentives but the public sphere has recognized the environmental detriment that it produces in the form of food waste. In May of this year, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, introduced a bill to standardize food labels across the country so that the dates offered are informed and accurate (Ramkumar). The implementation of this bill could save millions of pounds of perfectly edible foods from spending their lives decaying in landfills. With a more strategized approach to reshaping food culture and to combating food insecurity, I am confident that the food supply that could be offered to residents can become as bountiful as current attempts to affect sustainable change.

2 thoughts on “Improving Nutritional Outcomes in the City of Dreams

  1. Interesting Post. It made me think of the food desert post that Lil’ Policy Bunny put up, titled: The Real Cost of Malnutrition. Politicians, idealists, and of course store owner do not seem to understand how complicated the issue of malnutrition is. Based on your post, it’s clear to me that this issue isn’t as simple as providing subsidies for fruits and veggies. Rather, dietary habits are influenced by economic standing, classism, and culture alike. I’m interested to see how the city of Los Angeles will approach this issue in the future and what it will take to fix it.

  2. I think this was really well written and captures a problem that many in LA are finally putting their talents towards solving. In the past year, I’ve heard of a few interesting companies that are trying new attempts to mitigate food waste or make nutrition more affordable. One store, called Everytable, just opened up near USC and exists in other LA neighborhoods. The stores in low income areas are priced to be affordable for the surrounding population, and stores in higher income areas are priced higher. That means that the same healthy meal is $4 at the South LA store and $8 in Santa Monica. These meals are vegetable and protein rich. Nutrition is then made more affordable and portable for people that it is not usually accessible to. It’s a really interesting concept to me that I’d love to hear your opinion on.

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