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Forty Years in a Food Desert

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Food for thought this Passover from my wife/guest-blogger, Kaile Shilling:

This week, Jews all over the world are preparing for Passover, the ritual meal that recalls the 40 years our people wandered in the desert after escaping from Egypt. But the holiday has particular resonance here in our city, where despite 40 years of hard work, thousands of our fellow citizens in South Los Angeles live in a "food desert": an area where supermarkets are scarce and fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by.

The challenge in South Los Angeles is not the desire to eat right, but the difficulty in doing so. There are fewer than one-third as many grocery stores per capita in South LA as in the city's more affluent neighborhoods. And getting to those grocery stores is a major challenge for South LA's many low-income residents who depend on public transportation. Imagine carrying a bag full of tomatoes and eggs over three different buses for 40 minutes before walking the rest of the way home.

Where the West Side has Whole Foods and Gelson's, South Los Angelenos have to rely on convenience stores - there are more than four times as many per capita - with their limited selections and higher prices. Small wonder that studies show that people in South LA eat more chips, candy, and sugary beverages than people in Westwood. As a result, obesity rates are nearly double those of high-income neighborhoods.

This is not a new problem. South Los Angeles has been clamoring for more supermarkets since the sixties. After the 1992 riots, Rebuild LA (now RLA) promised to build 32 new supermarkets in the affected areas. Almost two decades later, we're barely halfway there.

For any person of conscience, this is an obvious matter of equity. Eating is a basic need; access to healthy food should not be restricted to those who can afford it. Jewish rituals remind us of the importance of food every week. As part of the blessings before the Friday night Sabbath dinner, we proclaim our gratitude for "bread from the earth" and "the fruit of the vine." The Passover seder plate, with its bitter herbs, lamb shank, and egg uses food to recall the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt and subsequent exile in the desert. Having found our way out, it is part of our tradition to help others do the same.

And on Yom Kippur, our holiest of days, we are called on to abstain from food, to remind us to pay attention: to what we have, and what we take for granted. To the ways that food, and the sharing of food, builds and maintains community. Nowhere do we need more to be reminded that we are part of a community than in our vast and diverse city.

Whether you're a Jew or a Gentile, liberal or conservative, food equity is also an economic issue that affects us all. The nonprofit RTI Institute recently found that California taxpayers spend over $4 billion annually treating obesity-related health problems. Medical expenses and absenteeism connected to obesity cost employers an average of over $3,000 each annually. Unhealthy eating habits are also linked to lower performance and attendance among school children.

Fortunately, we know some of the solutions to this problem. The city already mandates that housing developers subsidize low-income housing; we could apply the same policy to grocery store development, something groups like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance are already working on. More supermarkets would also bring more jobs with benefits into South LA, saving public health care and unemployment dollars.

Meanwhile, Market Makeovers, another local organization, is partnering with schools to help redesign existing mom-and-pop convenience stores. That includes installing movable racks for fresh fruits and vegetables, reorganizing refrigerated sections to hold more dairy products, and placing healthy options like bananas and dried fruit next to the candy near the register.

This two-pronged approach offers a chance to truly re-imagine our city as one that respects and promotes health on all levels. As Elliot Petty of LAANE says, "the grocery industry is dividing our city into the haves and have-nots." As our prayers and traditions remind us, food is meant to bring us together, not drive us further apart.

Kaile Shilling is a Board Member of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.