Journal of Aesthetics & protest

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issue 7

Food Justice Now

An inquiry toward the possibility of a sustainable and equitable food movement in Southern California.

By Mark Vallianatos

Urban & Environmental Policy Institute

   In my work to help ensure that Angelinos can access healthy food, I’ve seen a surge in interest in new food systems, as city dwellers experiment with growing and sharing their own food.(1)A de-emphasis on buying food through standard consumer channels is revaluing urban agriculture, local food and the social act of cooking and eating. Whatever their long term impacts, these local/ slow/ sustainable food efforts bring a welcome thoughtfulness to the relationship between cities and food (2), reversing an amnesia brought on by industrial food systems.

It’s an open question though whether the new urban food practitioners, some of whom seek to live simpler in the context of the current economic and environmental crisis, can both learn from and appreciate the ways that low-income people manage to get by in ‘food deserts.’ It’s unclear whether food sharing, growing, and selective purchasing movements flourishing among well-to-do progressives and ‘bourgeois anarchists’ can improve access to healthy food for all.

What is clear is the need for a strong food justice movement in the city and region.

One of the wisest ever put downs of Los Angeles is comedian Fred Allen’s: 'A wonderful place to live – if you're an orange.’

The citrus industry in Southern California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a favorable climate, developments in plant breeding, railways, and refrigerated shipping, Mediterranean idyll boosterism via orange crate labels, and a racial and gender segregated labor force (3), fueled the first of the three large migratory waves that populated Los Angeles (4) and large landowners also helped establish a pattern for the region being developed according to the highest present and speculative value of real estate rather than social needs, health, or democratic deliberation (5).

In 1910, LA County was the most productive agricultural county in the U.S., with, among other assets, more than 7000 'backyard' cows (6).

Today, it's not in the top 20 in the state.(7)

The challenges and potential of food in L.A. today derive in large part from the mixed legacy of agricultural land converted to suburban uses within the city.

Ranches and groves purchased by developers over the years and oriented to the streetcar then automobile created an expectation that people should live in residential only zones and drive to supermarkets. Transit-dependent residents, living among long, difficult-to-walk street blocks shaped from former ‘truck farms,’ find it difficult to escape food deserts.

Yet private yards and single-family dwellings, common in many low-income neighborhoods, are potential sites for renewed urban agriculture.

In addition to strong interest in community and backyard gardening, people are converting lawns to gardens (8), sharing backyards so gardeners without their own land can grow food (9), guerilla gardening on vacant public property (10), taking advantage of L.A.’s fairly permissive rules on urban chickens (11), and planting, mapping and gleaning fruit trees (12).

The 1992 Los Angeles uprising highlighted a city divided into 'two cities' (13), with disparities that included access to healthy food.

L.A. lacks the neighborhood green grocers of eastern cities. It relies primarily on large supermarkets (with large minimum parking requirements).

Consolidation of chains and neglect of minority areas led to loss of supermarkets in Central and South Los Angeles long before the 1992 uprising or even the 1965 Watts riots (14).

Following the uprising, Peter Ueberroth and Rebuild L.A. pledged to use the power of the private sector to bring 32 new stores to the neighborhoods (15).

Ten year after this pledge, there was only one new store and there were three times as many supermarkets per capita in majority White areas as in majority African American zip codes and 1.7 times as many in White zip codes than in Latino majority ones (16).

Community food mapping and food and health surveys shows that transit dependant low-income communities of color rely upon fast food, liquor and corner stores, where nutritious items are scare and prices are high, with a resulting toll on health, especially via high incidences of obesity and diabetes (17).

Food retail in the region is in transition with super centers (18), small format stores like Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets (19), ethnic markets, and 99 cent stores vying to supplement or displace the three main unionized chains.

A built in price increase for stolen shopping carts is the only transportation ‘policy’ currently in place to bring people to food and food to people.

Facing these challenges, residents of food desert areas cope by walking to local corner stores, 99 cent stores, or fast food restaurant to shop; supplementing their diets with government and charitable food assistance programs; buying food from mobile vendors; and, if they ride buses to jobs outside of their neighborhoods, buying food from grocery stores in more affluent parts of the city.

Some of these strategies for getting food without access to a car could and should be emulated by more Angelinos. It’s healthier in a number of ways to walk to local food stores regularly and bring back ingredients for that evening’s dinner than to load up an SUV twice a month up with huge quantities of groceries.

But we should not romanticize survival level behavior that’s forced upon people by poverty and geography and decades of discrimination. Better to pursue ‘food justice’ than accept ‘just getting by.’

Food justice is the understanding that all people deserve good food (20).

The food justice movement provides a useful correlary to middle/upper-class local/ slow/ shared/ sustainable food efforts. They have similar goals – better food – but food justice has a more explicit focus on distributional equity, ensuring that people without much power can access and afford good, healthy food.

Efforts to improve access to healthy food underway in L.A. include: attracting new food markets (21) and converting corner stores to offer more healthy food (22); banning new fast food restaurants in south L.A (23); reforming school food (24) and creating a food policy council for the City (25); thinking about illegal but ubiquitous street food vending as a source for produce (26); linking transportation, land use, and food access policies (27); creating edible landscaping at affordable housing, schools and other public spaces (28).

The food movement in the region draws from decades long civil rights struggles in South L.A., anti-hunger activists, students and parents and community health promatoras, the ‘Latino-labor’ alliance that has elected relatively progressive officials, dieticians, doctors, chefs, lifestyle environmentalists, and hipsters, artists and planners inspired by better food as a metaphor for and pathway to a livable city.

This movement has the potential for becoming a multi-class, multi-ethnic movement that can bridge the region’s divides.

Globalization from above of international trade and finance and corporate consolidation in food production, processing, and retail sectors continues to build an agribusiness-based food system (29).

Food shipped in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and warehoused in the Inland Empire continue to kill via particulate grapevines (30).

At the same time, a globalization from below of migration and ‘Latino urbanism’ are reshaping shopping patterns and street life in Los Angeles. Street vendors that bring a sense of life to streets designed solely for cars, taco trucks gathering crowds and slowing traffic, people shopping four times a week for ingredients to cook that night, newcomers who were farmers themselves or have family who still are – these facts on the ground are making food in Los Angeles more interesting, less suburban (31).

We can envision that the confluence of a more vibrant city, a city committed through planning and policy to food justice, and a city where people are moved to experiment with local food and alternative food systems, will produce a greater variety of places to buy, grow, and share good tasting, healthy food for all.

(1) I’d like to acknowledge my colleagues at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and community partners in Los Angeles for their pioneering work on food justice. (back)

(2) "Cities developed based on the ability of money and power to make energy ‘flow up-hill’ and bring food to urban dwellers" Manuel de Landa, A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. Zone Books, 2000.
"When this flow falters, empires fall and revolutions break out. At the same time, the prime challenge to the dominance of cities, the modern suburb, derives from the 'ideology of the villa' - a mental and physical flight by elites from the city to the food producing provinces."
Reinhard Bentmann et al, The Villa as hegemonic Architecture. Prometheus Books, 1992. (back)

(3) See Douglas Cazaux Sackman, Orange Empire: California and the fruits of Eden. University of California Press, 2005. (back)

(4) The population of Los Angeles County nearly tripled in the first decade of the 20th century, jumping from 170,000 in 1900 to approximately 500,000 in 1910. U.S. Census Bureau. (back)

(5) Sackman, Orange Empire. (back)

(6) 29 percent of the County was farmlands, much of it dedicated to 1.7 million orange trees. While more than 30 percent of tenant farmers were non-white, fewer than one percent of farm owners were minority. 1910 Census of Agriculture. (back)

(7) Thanks to leases to nurseries beneath power lines, the leading crops in L.A. County are ornamental trees and shrubs. California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Agriculture Resource Directory 2007. p. 29. (back)

(8) For example, Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates project. (back)

(9) Programs exist to match yard owners who lack the time to garden with gardeners who don’t own land. Susan Carrier. ‘Modern-day share-cropping,’ Los Angeles Times. June 20, 2009. (back)

(10) For example, (back)

(11) Hens may be kept in many residential zoned areas in the City of Los Angeles as long as their coop is located at least 20 feet from the house and at least 35 feet from neighboring residences. (back)

(12) TreePeople’s Fruit Tree program gives residents fruit tree saplings and dwarf varieties for container gardening; see Fallen Fruit for maps of fruit trees overhanging public spaces in L.A. (back)

(13) Former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, in his 5th inaugural address in 1989, stated that “Los Angeles cannot permanently exist as two cities, one amazingly prosperous, one increasingly poorer in substance and in hope.” (back)

(14) Amanda Shaffer, The Persistence of L.A.’s Grocery Gap. Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, 2002. (back)

(15) Rebuild L.A. was a private sector effort, headed by Ueberroth, chair of L.A.’s 1984 Olympics, to attract reinvestment to inner city Los Angeles. The Chairman of Vons, on of the big three supermarket chains, said at a press conference: “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 jackrabbits than people.” (back)

(16) Shaffer, Persistence of L.A.’s Grocery Gap. (back)

(17) Andrea Azuma, 'Food Access in Central and South Los Angeles: Mapping Injustice, Agenda for Action'. Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, 2007; Susan H. Babey et al, Designed for Disease: the Link Between Local Food Environments and Obesity and Diabetes. UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2008. (back)

(18) Sarah Lin & Monte Morin, Voters in Inglewood Turn Away Wal-Mart, L.A. TIMES, April 7, 2004 (back)

(19) Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, Shopping for a Market: Evaluating Tesco’s Entry into Los Angeles and the United States. 2007. (back)

(20) Its conceptual DNA comes from the environmental justice and community food security movements with assists from food systems and health research. For a further explanation of food justice, see Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi, Food Justice, forthcoming 2010, MIT Press. (back)

(21) Nationwide, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), which has invested in over fifty projects ranging from new 69,000 square-foot supermarkets to renovations of a 900 square-foot minimarket, is the most promising model for supporting new grocery stores. The Reinvestment Fund, Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative: Providing Healthy Food Choices to Pennsylvania’s Communities (2007). In Los Angeles, the Community Reinvestment Agency has a package of incentives for market development, while The Alliance for Healthy & Responsible Grocery Stores, formed in response to the 2003 supermarket lockout/strike, is promoting grocery accountability by seeking to tie incentives to criteria related to good jobs, healthy food, and environmental sustainability. Link to the study. (back)

(22) For instance, the South Los Angeles Healthy Eating Active Living Collaborative has worked with owners to convert two small stores. See also Healthy Corner Stores for information on health efforts involving corner stores/ bodegas. (back)

(23) To deal with the health consequences of the saturation of fast food in parts of Los Angeles, the L.A. City Council passed a two year moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, defined as “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 containers.”L.A., CAL., Ordinance 180103 (2008). (back)

(24) The Los Angeles Unified School District has removed unhealthy beverages and snacks from vending machines and school stores, reformulated cafeteria food to reduce fat, salt and sugar, and signed a contract for a swipe card payment system to remove the stigma of free/ reduced price meal tickets. (back)

(25) The City of Los Angeles is funding a position through the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and Urban & Environmental Policy Institute to launch a food policy council to advise the city on policies to improve food access, and support urban agriculture. (back)

(26) Street Vending in the city of L.A. is illegal with the exception of a few vending zones. Only one of these zones – in McArthur Park – was ever implemented, and that program failed because nearby store owners had veto rights over what street vendors were allowed to sell. Other cities allow street vending but regulate it, giving policy makers a stick and a carrot to incentivize vending of healthier items. Gregg Kettles, Regulating Vending In The Sidewalk Commons, 77 Temple Law Review 1 (2004). (back)

(27) For example, encouraging markets to offer shuttles for customers, requiring pedestrian and bike friendly store design, orienting bus stops at grocery stores, incorporating food access goals in local plans. (back)

(28) Affordable housing developers such as WORKs, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, and East Los Angeles Community Corporation are exploring gardens, edible landscaping, and training residents as gardeners and healthy food promoters to make their developers hubs for healthy food. (back)

(29) In 2005, global exports of agricultural products were worth approximately $669 billion, a 23 percent increase from 2000. Global food retail sales exceed $4 trillion annually. The 15 largest global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales and over 50 percent of hypermarket sales. Wal-mart, Carrefour, and Tesco top the list. Link to the article. (back)

(30) For example, just one commodity from one trading partner, grapes from Chile, shipped 5500 miles from the port of Valparaiso to L.A. or Long beach, cause 2 premature deaths and 47 cases of asthma each year and release 15 tons of particulates and 7000 tons of carbon dioxide along the way. The Pacific Institute. Paying With Our Health: The Real Cost of Freight Transport in California. (back)

(31) See the Latino Urban Forum for more background on Latino urbanism. (back)