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Food Justice and Food Retail in Los Angeles

Jun 25, 2009

CaliforniaEnvironmental JusticeHealth

Mark Vallianatos*

Food justice is the notion that everyone deserves healthy
food and that the benefits and risks associated with food should be shared
fairly. The concept borrows its distributional equity framework from the
environmental justice movement, its focus on access to food from the community
food security movement, and its interest in food environments from research in
the public health and food systems fields.[1]
Unfortunately, disparities in access and health mean that food justice is
currently an aspiration rather than a reality in many low-income communities.

This article examines the food retail landscape in Los
Angeles and briefly summarizes some programs that could increase food access
and quality in underserved communities. In describing these opportunities, this
article shows how L.A. residents, advocates, and policy makers have begun and
can continue to survey their food environments, attract more supermarkets and
hold food retail firms accountable; partner with corner stores to offer more
healthy choices; limit fast food restaurants and improve nutrition information
at chain restaurants; promote healthy mobile food vending; and establish
farmers’ markets and re-envision these markets as hubs for local food
distribution. Some of these efforts have been underway for years, while others
are new experiments. Together they comprise a diverse set of interconnected
measures to promote food justice by improving food retail in low-income areas.

Two Cities

In 1989, former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, in his fifth
inaugural address, stated that, “Los Angeles cannot permanently exist as two
cities—one amazingly prosperous, one increasingly poorer in substance and in
hope.”[2] Just a
few years later, in 1992, the city erupted in violence following the Rodney
King verdict. This drew stark attention to the city’s divisions manifested in
race and class—and also, as it turns out, in access to food.

Rebuild L.A.

After the civil unrest, Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the
1984 Olympics, was recruited to lead Rebuild L.A., a business-led economic
development effort that operated on the assumption that, as Ueberroth phrased
it, “America doesn’t solve problems unless it’s done by the private sector.”[3]
The heads of four large grocery chains held press conferences to pledge that
they would establish thirty-two new supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods
hard hit by the unrest. The Chairman of Vons described the commitment in a
manner that suggested that the chains understood: “We concluded that there was
an enormously dense population that we were not adequately serving or not
serving at all. . . .On the other hand, we realized we had been considering
sites in the hinterlands with more jack rabbits than people.”[4]

Grocery Gap

Ten years after the 1992 riots and nine years after Rebuild
L.A.’s promises, the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at
Occidental College sought to determine whether conditions had changed. They had
not. Between 1995 and 2002, the Rebuild L.A. area gained only one supermarket.[5]
The report revealed that in the greater L.A. region, there were 3.04 times as
many supermarkets per capita in upper income zip codes as in low income zip
codes; 3.17 times as many supermarkets in majority white zip codes as compared
to majority African American zip codes; and 1.69 times more supermarkets in
majority white as in majority Latino zip codes.[6]

Food Insecurity and Obesity

This disparity was just one sign that communities of color experienced
difficulty accessing a healthy diet. When compounded with poverty, a lack of
parks and safe places to play, and inadequate access to health care, a lack of
food access predictably leads to a disturbing double bind of hunger and
obesity. Ample research has demonstrated a correlation between health problems
like obesity and diabetes and a person’s food environment, that is, their
proximity to grocery stores and healthy food retail outlets.[7]
In L.A. County, over forty percent of people with incomes below the poverty
line are affected by food insecurity—a lack of reliable access to enough food
to meet their nutritional needs.[8]
Unsurprisingly, lower income areas of the county suffer most, and disparities
are quickly increasing. Between 2003 and 2005, the food insecurity gap between
predominately white and affluent West L.A. County and predominately Latino and
African American and low-income South L.A. County had doubled from seven
percent to fifteen percent.[9] Obesity
rates in the County also vary by race and ethnicity. In 2005, twenty-nine percent
of adult Latinos and twenty-eight percent of adult African Americans in L.A.
County were obese, compared to seventeen percent of adult Whites and six
percent of adult Asian/Pacific Islanders.[10]

Project CAFE

To get a more detailed picture of the food environment in
low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles—and how it could be improved—our
organization, the Center for Food and Justice, partnered with three community
groups[11] to map
food resources, survey stores, and develop possible intervention and policy strategies.
The effort was called Project CAFE (Community Action on Food Environments).
Over a five-year period, residents walked the streets of their neighborhoods
and mapped over a thousand food retail locations. They also completed detailed
surveys of the availability, price, and quality of food in ninety of the
identified food stores.[12]

This community-based research confirmed the abundance of
fast food, corner stores, and liquor stores. It also highlighted the scarcity
of supermarkets, produce stands, and farmers markets. As a result, many
community members must shop at convenience stores that offer a very limited
selection of healthy foods and charge high prices.

Two students helping conduct food mapping.

Exposing these barriers presents an opportunity to devise
solutions for overcoming them. The partners of Project CAFE, along with
nationwide health advocates, community advocates, and policy makers are working
on ways to attract healthy food stores, to make it easier for people to grow
food locally, to integrate food access and health goals into land use,
transportation, and economic development decision making, and to make public
assets, like schools, hubs for healthy eating.

Food Retail in Los Angeles

The landscape of the grocery industry in Los Angeles
continues to evolve. Because of Los Angeles’s car culture, the region has long
been served primarily by large chain supermarkets rather than greengrocers or
public markets. Consolidation of the major grocery chains and flight from
“inner-city” areas has exacerbated the issue.[13] In
2004, a bitter lockout and strike between the big unionized chains and the
United Food and Commercial Workers disrupted the sector, weakening the four
major chains and allowing new format stores to make inroads.[14]

Super-centers, or big box stores containing what are
essentially full-size supermarkets along with other products, represent one of
these new types of food retail. However, in Los Angeles and Inglewood,
labor-community resistance and legislative setbacks for Wal-Mart have meant
that super-centers have been slower to penetrate the L.A. region than other parts of the country.[15]

Smaller-format grocery stores provide a counter trend, and,
with some changes, may offer promising opportunities for areas with limited
access to fresh healthy food, known as “food deserts.”[16]
Since plots of land large enough to build new full sized supermarkets are
scarce in many urban areas, these smaller grocery markets may provide realistic
solutions. The British retailer Tesco has opened dozens of small-format Fresh
& Easy Neighborhood Market stores in and around Los Angeles. However, a
UEPI report on Tesco’s European operations and U.S. plans found that stores
were built mainly in middle-income areas. Only one or two of the first hundred
sites where Fresh & Easy stores were opened or planned were true food
deserts.[17] Trader
and Whole Foods are already popular in the region, however these chains
have been mostly unwilling to locate in or near underserved low-income areas. A
final trend in food retail is that “ninety-nine cent” stores are selling more
fresh food. These discounters may play a growing role in increasing access to
fresh foods because shoppers can buy a few cheap items multiple times a week.
This fits with the buying habits of many low-income, public-transit dependent,
immigrant residents of Los Angeles.

More Grocery Stores: The Pennsylvania Plan

Attracting new stores to underserved areas and overhauling
existing stores to offer healthy items requires a comprehensive strategy, regardless
of the mix or format of grocery stores. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing
Initiative (FFFI) is one promising model. The FFFI started with $30 million in
state funds, which was intended to leverage an additional $90 million in
economic development and private funding. This $120 million was allocated to
start or improve food markets in areas with an insufficient number of healthy
food retail outlets. To date, the initiative has invested in over fifty
projects ranging from constructing 69,000 square-foot supermarkets to
renovations of a 900 square-foot minimarket in Philadelphia.[18]

More and Better Grocery Stores: The L.A. Way?

In Los Angeles a different approach has been taken. The Alliance for Healthy & Responsible
Grocery Stores
(the Alliance) formed in response to the 2003 supermarket
lockout/strike. Its creation was prompted by concerns over the regional entry
of Wal-Mart supercenters as well as interest in attracting supermarkets to
low-income areas and improving existing stores.[19]
The Alliance has sponsored hearings on the health and economic costs of
supermarket loss. Its members care about food quality and job quality—how
stores operate as well as where they locate. They are developing a checklist of
standards for calculating how incentives are distributed to supermarkets. Under
this model, stores “earn points” in three areas in order to gain priority in
requests for public subsidies. Point allocation is based upon (1) offering
healthy food and locating in underserved areas; (2) promoting economic
sustainability, through good wages, benefits, unionized workforces, local
hiring, and other strategies; and (3) furthering environmental sustainability
in the construction, operation and supplying of stores. The Alliance is seeking
city government support for an ordinance aimed at advancing these goals.

Corner Store Conversions

While most attention has been focused on saving, attracting,
and improving traditional supermarkets, there is also a movement underway to
transform corner stores. Small corner stores, liquor stores, and convenience
stores are often the only places that offer groceries in low-income
neighborhoods. These stores tend to have a limited selection of healthy items.[20]
They often receive free display racks from junk food distributors or manufacturers
in exchange for prominently displaying snack and soda displays towards the
storefronts. The challenge is to work with the owners to overcome these
incentives and replace junk food with more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and
whole grains.

Organizations interested in health issues have tried pilot
projects aimed at shifting the mix of what is offered in small stores. These
programs range from small-scale efforts to bring regular boxes of produce to
stores to expansive remodeling plans that add refrigerated cases, improve store
layout, and conduct social marketing to educate residents about healthier
offerings. In Los Angeles there has been at least one full-scale “corner store
conversion.” The store, owned by the uncle of a participant in the South Los
Angeles Healthy Eating Active Living Collaborative, received a grant to remodel
its layout, feature healthy items, and conduct social marketing.[21]
A national Healthy Corner Store Network connects individuals working on
renovation efforts and provides training, in-person business development, and

High school student Magali Bravo documents a corner store conversion in South Los Angeles.

Restaurants: Fast Food Moratorium

The flip side of the lack of grocery stores in some
low-income neighborhoods is the super-saturation of fast food restaurants in
these same areas. A study by Community Health Councils, for example, found 73
percent of restaurants in South Los Angeles were fast food establishments,
compared to 42 percent of restaurants in West Los Angeles.[23]

The mix of food retail in neighborhoods is more than a
matter of convenience. A 2008 study of California food retail locations and
health indicators revealed that individuals who “live
near an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores compared to
grocery stores and produce vendors have a significantly higher prevalence of
obesity and diabetes regardless of individual or community income.”

To deal with the health consequences
of the saturation of fast food in parts of Los Angeles, the L.A. City Council, led
by Councilperson Jan Perry, recently passed a moratorium on new fast food
restaurants in South Los Angeles.
[25] This effort was supplemented by a revision to the definition
of fast food in city planning codes to “any establishment which dispenses food
for consumption on or off the premises, and which has the following
characteristics: a limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or
heated quickly, no table orders, and food served in disposable wrapping and

This effort to limit fast food was
the first major use of zoning rules in the United States motivated by health
rather than aesthetic or historic preservation objectives. Critics in Los
Angeles argued that it was paternalistic to limit food choices for local
residents. They also argued that fast food restaurants are concentrated in
these areas because people there simply like to eat fast food. The first
argument is ironic since residents who are surrounded only by fast food
restaurants only have one choice, which is between different brands of fast
food. The second argument is more pernicious and verges on racist. Readers of
Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will recall that the drive-through
fast food restaurant model was invented and perfected in Southern California for
white working and middle-class people, and for suburbs as well as cities.
[27] The preponderance of
fast food in low-income minority communities is the legacy of a nationwide
model of food service supported by massive corporate advertising. It fails to
constitute evidence that certain ethnicities or neighborhoods want fast food
chains as their only restaurant options.

The moratorium was an important but
largely symbolic step motivated by the desire of leaders and citizens to make
it easier for residents of underserved neighborhoods to live healthy lives.

Nutrition Labeling in Restaurants

One way to influence eating habits in restaurants is to
create consumer awareness about the nutritional value of the food that they
buy. A new California law will require chain restaurants with twenty or more
locations in the state to provide nutrition labeling on menus by 2011.[28]
While some are skeptical that labeling alone can transform dietary habits, a
health impact assessment by the Los Angeles County’s Department of Public
Health on a similar proposal in the County estimated that ten percent of customers
informed by labeling would reduce their orders by 100 calories.[29]
This would prevent over one-third of the 6.75 million pound average annual
weight gain in the County’s population aged five and up.[30]

Mobile food vendors

Los Angeles is home to tens of thousands of mobile food
vendors including taco trucks, produce trucks, three-wheeled ice cream carts,
and people selling snacks and drinks out of grocery carts. Largely unregulated
and mobile, these vendors represent both a challenge and an opportunity. Mobile
vendors of sweets, sodas, and fried snacks often wait outside school campuses
at the end of the school day. Their sales to students can counter the progress
being made inside health-conscious school cafeterias. Added tension arises from
the fact that vendors are often parents of students in the schools.

On the other hand, fruit and vegetable carts and trucks can
be important sources of good food. Because there are so few places to buy
healthy and affordable produce in many neighborhoods, these convenient mobile
vendors are often the only realistic source of fresh produce.

Los Angeles may be able to learn from the Green Cart
, a program in New York City designed to encourage healthy vending.[31]
Food vending in New York City is more strictly regulated than in Los Angeles.
In New York, they City creates incentives for vendors by issuing five hundred
new cart permits a year for a two year period only to vendors who sell fruits
and vegetables. A modified healthy vending program might work in Los Angeles if
it gave permits to existing unlicensed vendors who sell healthy items, thereby
providing healthy food vendors with some legal recognition.

Farmers’ Markets in Low-Income Communities

Farmers’ markets can be a tremendous resource. They offer
healthy, fresh and locally grown food that can be affordable when in season. As
community gathering spaces, they give residents a chance to meet farmers and
cultivate urban-rural connections. Furthermore, they support local small-scale
agriculture. Farmers’ markets can help create a healthier food environment in
areas underserved by supermarkets and sit-down restaurants. The challenge is
that the spending habits and economic resources of low-income people may fail
to attain the level of spending needed to support farmers’ markets. Recent
immigrants in Los Angeles tend to spend a few dollars at a time several times a
week when they shop, rather than loading a hundred dollars worth of groceries
into a car like some suburban shoppers. Even if there is foot traffic through a
market, there may be insufficient monetary expenditure to entice farmers who
could be selling at more profitable markets. When fewer farmers show up, fewer
people shop. This downward spiral can doom the market.

One strategy to promote the success of farmers’ markets in
low-income areas involves partnering with community groups and institutions
that know how to promote the market. Markets can be located in areas that host
frequent visitors, such as school campuses. Locating a market in an edge
neighborhood straddling low-income and middle-income areas can also yield an
economic profit. Finally, creating opportunities for farmers to sell beyond the
market can sustain farmer participation. For example, UEPI has proposed a
farmers’ market hub model. Under this model, the market manager assists farmers
who sell at the market with aggregating their produce to sell to institutional
customers like restaurants, schools, or small- to medium-sized produce
distributors. These scaled-up sales provide an extra source of income to
farmers and make it more likely that farmers could continue to participate in
farmers’ markets based in low-income areas.[32]


At its best, food brings people together while celebrating
the social diversity and natural wealth of a region. Fairer, healthier—and more
just—food retail in Los Angeles would go a long way towards repairing the
divide that has kept Los Angeles separated into two cities.

* Mark Vallianatos is Policy Director of
the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College and
an Adjunct Professor at Occidental, where he teaches a course on campus
sustainability. He was a former director of UEPI's Center for Food and Justice.
Mark is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and co-author of
The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a
Livable City
(2005). He would like to acknowledge Patricia Fitzmorris
for research assistance and his colleagues at the Urban & Environmental
Policy Institute and community partners in Los Angeles for their pioneering
work on food justice.

[1] For
more information on the scope and implications of a justice framework on food,
see Robert Gottlieb and
Anupama Joshi,
Food Justice
(forthcoming 2010).

[2] Gottlieb et al. The Next Los Angeles: The
Struggle for a Livable City
69 (2005).

[3] Richard
W. Stevenson, Patching Up L.A. — A Corporate Blueprint, N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 1992, § 3, at 1.

[4] George
White, Inner City Plea Heeded by Grocers, L.A. Times, May 10, 1993, at D1.

[6] Id.
at 44, 49.

[7] See,
., K. Morland et al., Supermarkets, Other Food Stores, and Obesity:
The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study
, 30 Am. J. Preventive Med. 333 (2006); L.M. Powell et al., Associations
Between Access to Food Stores and Adolescent Body Mass Index
, 33 Am. J. Preventive Med. S301 (2007); Susan Babey
et al., The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, Designed for Disease: The
Link Between Local Food Environments and Obesity and Diabetes
1 (2008)

[8] Los Angeles County Department of Public Health,
Food Insecurity is Increasing in Los Angeles County 2 (2007).

[9] Id.
at 2, Table 1.

[10] Los
Angeles County Office of Health Services, Los Angeles County Health Survey,

[11] The
community partners were the Healthy School Food Coalition (active near
MacArthur Park), Esperanza Community Housing Corporation (based near the
University of Southern California), and Blazers Youth Services Community Club
(located south west of the intersection of the 10 and 110 freeways).

[12] Andrea Azuma, Urban & Environmental Policy
Institute, Occidental College, Food Access in Central and South Los Angeles:
Mapping Injustice, Agenda for Action

[13] See
Shaffer, supra note 5, at 33–38.

[14] See
Jennifer Blair & Sam Bernstein, Labor and the Wal-Mart Effect, in Wal-Mart World: The World’s Biggest Corporation
in the Global Economy
106 (Stanley D. Brunn, ed., 2006).

[15] See
Sarah Lin & Monte Morin, Voters in Inglewood Turn Away Wal-Mart,
L.A. Times, April 7, 2004, at A1.

See Amanda Shaffer, et al., Urban
And Environmental policy Institute, Occidental College, Shopping for a Market:
Evaluating Tesco’s Entry into Los Angeles and the United States
7 (2007)

[17] Id.
at 29–31.

Matthew Garrahan, Retailer Upsets California Grocery Unions, Financial Times, April 4, 2008.

[20] For
example, the corner stores surveyed by Project CAFE did not offer most of the
foods recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food
Plan. Azuma, supra note 12, at 7.

[21] See
YouTube Video: HEAC South LA Video: "You Can't Put A Price
on That"
(YAAO Team 2008)
(last visited June 1, 2009) (student-produced video featuring the story of the

[23] L.B.
Lewis et al., African Americans’ access to healthy food options in South Los
Angeles restaurants
, 95 Am. J. Pub.
Health 668, 671

[24] Babey,
et. al.,
supra note 7, at 1.

[25] L.A., Cal., Ordinance 180103 (2008).

[26] Id.
at § 1.

[27] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side
of the All-American Meal
13-28 (2001).

[28] S.B
1420 (Cal. 2008). The Governor signed the bill outside of a Chili’s restaurant.
It is worth noting that an order of the Texas Cheese Fries with Jalapeño-Ranch
Dressing, the Smokehouse Bacon Triple-The-Cheese Big Mouth Burger® with
Jalapeño-Ranch Dressing, and a slice of Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie® with
Vanilla Ice Cream (washing your meal down with water, since they do not provide
online nutritional data about their drinks), translates into 5,710 calories.
Brinker International, Chili’s Nutrition Menu (last visited
April 13, 2009).

[29] Simon, Paul et al., Los Angeles County
Department of Public Health, Menu Labeling as a Potential Strategy for
Combating the Obesity Epidemic: A Health Impact Assessment
1 (2008)

[30] Id.

[31] New
York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Green Carts
(last visited March 25, 2009).

[32] Center for Food & Justice, Occidental
College, Food Access & Distribution Solutions: 5 Strategies for Southern
3 (2008)

Copyright 2009 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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