The USDA estimates that 23.5 million people in the US are living in low-income areas that are more than one mile away from a supermarket, also known as food deserts.
Under its current definition set by the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a food desert is "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store." Of those 23.5 million people, 11.5 million of them live at or below federal poverty thresholds.
Historically, local and national governments have attempted to combat the emergence of food deserts by doing things like having "healthy market makeovers" or offering public-private loans or financial incentives for grocers to expand into these underserved areas. Yet these solutions tend to ignore the complexities of the problem, which involves far more than just a lack of nearby markets.
Clare Fox, executive director of the LA Food Policy Council, says, "Our food system is a mirror of our larger economy and our larger society. Where we see communities of color and low-income communities with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, we will also see a longstanding, historical, multi-generational disparities in our economy."
That is to say, a food desert does not suddenly become a food oasis when stores replace Hostess pies with bananas and apples. Despite the millions of dollars that local governments and private organizations have invested in the hopes of alleviating the situation, research suggests that building more markets that offer healthier options has not resulted in an overall positive change in people's eating habits. Both personal accounts and extensive quantitative studies (like this much-publicized RAND study from 2015) suggest that the age-old adage is true: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
So how can food deserts successfully be dealt with? At this point, the problem requires innovative solutions that deal with the problem at the personal level.
Los Angeles' South LA neighborhoods were among some of the first in the nation to make headlines for their lack of supermarkets and bans on opening new fast food establishments in the area, and the city continues to pioneer new strategies to combat this complex problem.
With With Love LA Market & Cafe is one of these innovative examples. A non-profit market, it intentionally set shop on the fringes of south LA's West Adams and Koreatown in a neighborhood known as El Salvador Community Corridor. It opened six months ago as a way to help alleviate the lack of healthful food options in the area. It was spearheaded by Andrew McDowell, a local resident who used to lead a church for the homeless in south LA, as a way to single-handedly provide fresher food options to the people in his neighborhood, regardless of income, race, social status, location, or language.
It all comes down to spreading the knowledge about the long-term impact of eating whole fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods—mostly through the matriarchs who do the majority of the cooking in their households.
One of the store's other goals, however, is to make its customers feel just as valuable and deserving of good food as shoppers in more affluent parts of town, like Santa Monica or Pasadena. Therein lies the success of their formula against food deserts: a healthy food market that simultaneously operates as a social enterprise.
With Love LA does this by offering both food and non-food based items that are as organic, local, and of the highest-quality possible. More importantly, they are constantly educating their customers on why these can be better than their conventional supermarket counterparts. Aisles are full of organic Pink Lady apples, hormone-free local chicken, and organic tampons, all of which are competitively priced compared to other well-stocked premium supermarkets.
"It's all about making our diverse audience feel inclusive and being receptive to their needs," says Karla T. Vasquez, With Love LA's director of community programs, as she shows me around the small market. Vasquez has discovered that in order to win over new customers and change lifelong habits, it all comes down to spreading the knowledge about the long-term impact of eating whole fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods—mostly through the matriarchs who do the majority of the cooking in their households.
The perception of value in food remains an issue, however, especially for customers who are single parents or who work minimum-wage jobs in a city where the cost of living is getting higher and higher every day.
This is where Vasquez comes in with her expertise, as a Salvadoran-American who lives in the neighborhood herself. Growing up, she lived in many other neighborhoods that would be considered food deserts, like East LA and other parts of South LA, but she agrees with the sentiment that the problem is an extremely deep one.
"If anything I'd say that the food system we've all grown up in has always been toxic. I remember that my favorite food up until I was eight years old was pickled red onions. It wasn't until I started going to LAUSD when my palate shifted and I started to prefer chocolate milk and coffee cake," she says. "All we have to do is take it back to the old days, because people in these communities do know how to eat well—we just need to remind them."
She points to a pineapple in the store. "When I inform our customers that it takes about a year to grow just one pineapple, they are more likely to justify the cost and make the purchase. I also teach them about how you can make tea using the peel, and then I instruct them on how to use the remains of that for compost, which maximizes your water intake and also maximizes your dollar." This method of one-on-one teaching appears to be slowly working for With Love.
The solution starts once we tackle structural racism and systemic inequality.
In addition to teaching her customers how to stretch their dollar at the market, Vasquez also offers a free bilingual weekly cooking class where she introduces some of the store's alternative food offerings. "Our customers really appreciate knowing little food tips because the struggle with food here is everywhere. I show people things like ways of keeping their produce fresher longer, and different ways to use every last bit of the piece of fruit or vegetable they buy in those classes."
While With Love LA offers a more hands-on approach that most markets, Fox insists that things must also change at the policy level. According to her, the solution starts once we tackle structural racism and systemic inequality. "There is a lack of full-service groceries in historically marginalized, low-income communities," she says. She also mentions the importance of California's redevelopment agencies that used helped deal with land use before they were eliminated by the California Supreme Court. "We don't have as many of these tools anymore, so we have to do figure it out ourselves."
Fox and her colleagues at the LA Food Policy Council penned a response to the RAND study, addressing some of these deeply rooted problems available for on their website.
"People buy groceries everywhere regardless of their social economic status. The crisis of food deserts was created by lots of different kinds of policies over a long period of time, so there has to be a multi-strategy approach layering on as many goods, opportunities, and access for people to participate in the process and have their voices heard."
While no single policy can grow grocery stores and change eat habits overnight, Fox believes we can all demand that local governments and the nation at large provide better services and support. She continues, "In terms of planning incentives and land use so that small businesses like With Love LA and other full-service grocery stores can set up shop and thrive in the communities where they are needed the most."
After all, she adds, "Food is a human right."