McDonald’s Big Mac Lunch (Yum), originally uploaded by BlueisCoool.

Are People Fat Because They Live in “Food Deserts?”

Once something is repeated enough, people begin to believe it is the gospel truth.

So it is with the idea that Los Angeles has some neighborhoods, mostly poor, where only “bad food” choices are available.

Received wisdom, along with governmental and non-profit studies, have now pronounced that obesity is unavoidable in these places.

Patt Morrison on KPCC has devoted a show to highlight this new “problem” where a lack of fresh produce and fresh food somehow is responsible for overeating and malnutrition.

As a photographer who has worked to photograph restaurants where calorie counts are now posted, and as a person who tries to eat healthy and exercise, do I agree that the rarity of fresh produce somehow leads to obesity?

I do not.

People eat the way they eat, not because of choice, but due to a number of factors, one of which is what they choose to eat.

For example, I live within walking distance of Fatburger, McDonalds, two donut shops, several bakeries, Taco Bell, Carls Jr, Lido Pizza and El Pollo Loco. I never eat in any of these places.

I am on a budget. I have been looking for work. I’m not rich. And I don’t eat crap.

Liberal thinkers, experts, and sociologists are forever portraying poor people as passive. In the manufactured outrage directed at society, blame is placed on forces that somehow compel people to behave. So it is with “food deserts” the unlucky victims who live in them must make do with fat, sugar and processed food. Because they live on the Moon?

Once upon a time, poor people had gardens in their backyards. Now LA may lack for many things, but backyards are not one of them. It takes effort to plant, some effort to cook, but it can be done.

The other fallacy advanced in the “food desert” theory is that people will make the right choices if presented with the right foods.

On trips to the Asian 99 Ranch Market, I often look inside the shopping carts of customers in the checkout line.

What I see is that white customers will load up their baskets with baked goods, ice cream, breads, beer and frozen foods.

And the Asian shopping carts will be full of fresh green vegetables.

Same choices and different outcomes.

We don’t live in food deserts. We live in deserts of the mind where we choose to think or we choose to not think.

That’s what I think.

4 thoughts on “Are People Fat Because They Live in “Food Deserts?”

  1. The food desert problem is very real, and I am dismayed by the suggestion that it’s a result of poor peoples’ stupidity or ignorance of their choices.

    Andy, you wouldn’t want to be in a dilemma where the choices are between unhealthful food and starvation. That is the reality for a very large segment of Los Angeles communities.

    The problem is that full-service supermarkets are few and far between in low-income communities, especially majority black areas.

    A few years ago, it was reported that there are more supermarkets along Ventura Boulevard alone than in all of South L.A.

    Major supermarkets avoid the ghetto because they don’t want the neighborhoods as customers or employees.

    This means either long drives or transit trips to out-of-the-way stores, if they can be made, or be at the mercy of local food outlets.

    Inner city markets, and often the Big 3 in L.A., are widely accused of poor service, higher prices and deteriorated perishables. In produce especially, the Big 3 (Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons), have locked up most of the supplies on the freshest fruits and vegetables. The smaller markets often pick up the lots that the Big 3 rejected for overripeness or damage.

    Some areas are so far from these markets that the only choices for food are liquor stores, bodegas or fast food stores. Poor residents are also heavily dependent on foodbanks and relief pantries.

    All of these places sell or dispense processed foods that are higher in fats, cholesterol and sodium.

    The working poor don’t have the time for a home-cooked meal, and increasingly don’t even have the basic skills to cook a meal apart from boiling or microwaving.

    Food preparation also involves cookware, cutlery and storage containers that the poor could not afford on top of the costs of the food itself.

    Processed foods are also preferred because of their longer shelf lives, ease of preparation and packaging that’s more resistant to vermin.

    Also, most of the poor are tenants in multiunit housing that don’t have backyards, have yards but don’t allow for gardening, or don’t have a way to secure plants. A fruit tree or vegetable garden will be picked clean by a tenant who gets to it first and the produce then sold on the street. And back to the skills issue: Life in an urban area means most of its residents don’t know how to grow food or tend to a garden.

    There are so many problems that need to be addressed before choice even becomes part of the issue.

    The comfortable are in no place to set an example on the food issue.


    1. “Major supermarkets avoid the ghetto because they don’t want the neighborhoods as customers or employees.”

      And that cannot be disputed. Businesses want to be where the money is.

      There is nothing new in the very fact that many supermarkets fled the “inner city” areas in the wake of 1960s riots and never returned.
      And liquor stores are everywhere, a blight and disgrace.

      My point is that what is around us, environmentally, will not always produce the personal behavior intended by social scientists.

      The larger problem in Los Angeles and the US is getting people back to sustainable, locally grown produce. Those vast asphalt parking lots and playgrounds that dot LA should be torn up and replanted with citrus trees, vegetable gardens and chicken farms. There should be tax breaks and tax incentives for converting commercial buildings to agricultural uses.

      In time, LA would have strawberries grown in North Hollywood, walnuts from Pico Rivera, free range Chickens from South Central and oranges from Orange County.

      And still, 75% of the people would go into the drive-in at Carls Jr………


      1. Of course people will rush preferentially into red and yellow colored fast food establishments anytime over buying green leaves from the local Asian grocery. It’s evolution’s fault.

        We’re geared to bow in worship and succumb to the evil trinity of fat, sugar, and salt. See Dr David Kessler’s theory…

        The sad thing (in USA) is the apathy (or lack of will?) on the part of public officials who could try to start to reverse the situation by a number of means, including national educational campaigns and regulating the root of the problem.


      2. And that cannot be disputed. Businesses want to be where the money is.

        Andy, it’s more pernicious than that. Businesses are already going after their desired markets, while telling everyone else — in L.A., that would be those living south of the 10 Freeway — “Your money is no good here.”

        The problem is most acute with black customers.

        Low-income Asian and Hispanic communities have slightly better access to grocery stores because their advantage is in selling imported foods and speaking the language of customers. They also have an ethnic business support base that could get money from smaller banks.

        Communities with African immigrant or Afro-Caribbean populations will have at least smaller bodegas that provide some native food products. African-American customers, on the other hand, show preference for standard American food products.

        Yet they have the fewest, and often the worst, options available.

        Major chains will not locate within predominantly black areas because they see blacks as a problem. The riot risk is a red herring. Chains have said that for insurance and financing reasons, they couldn’t locate in ghettos. Strange, though, that supermarkets will open up in other areas where other catastrophes (fires, flooding, tornadoes) are much more statistically probable than race rioting and are still able to find insurance and financing.

        Then there’s the claim that blacks, both customers and employees, are more prone to theft. This is still alleged even though security effectiveness has increased while costs of passive and active security has gone down in the past 30 years. Plus, store designs are uniform so these measures aren’t any more difficult to implement in high-crime areas.

        The other aspect is employment. This is a major sticking point for communities and markets. Even unions have highlighted labor issues as a point of contention, although unions devote more energy into preventing a nonunion shop from opening than organizing workers. One major problem with chain stores are that employees agree to be employees of the company and not an individual market. This means an employee has to go to a job site where he or she is needed, and it may be nowhere near their home. The Big 3 markets could move a worker as much as 20 miles from their home, and even more for managers.

        Workers in poor areas quit the most or claim the most hardships. Also, the stores were the subject of many discrimination lawsuits by minority workers who claim that the stores were reluctant to place workers in affluent markets.

        Yet it is something that could be anticipated and resolved. We just choose not to and finger-point.

        The larger problem in Los Angeles and the US is getting people back to sustainable, locally grown produce.

        The origin of produce is a minor concern. Human ingenuity has solved most of the problems of food storage, transportation and preservation. Closer-grown produce has no tangible benefit in nutrition or cost.

        Economics also works against locally grown food. Goods will gravitate to the highest bidder. Wealthier city regions will have the most options available to them. Even third world farmers will ship their foodstuffs to sell to overfed Americans while letting their compatriots starve.

        L.A. does have urban farming, but it’s done mostly as a recreational pursuit. It won’t go beyond the individual level because the supply is too small. The other problem is that L.A.’s land values are too high to allow for farming.

        Agriculture forms a supply region. Resources are inversely proportional to wealth.


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