When a new grocery store opens in many communities in Los Angeles, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. But when the Northgate González grocery store opened in Boyle Heights this fall, L.A. City Councilman José Huízar showed up, along with cheerleaders and members of a marching band.
This is because in Boyle Heights, as in many low-income neighborhoods, supermarkets are rare. In addition, lack of transportation makes getting fresh fruits and vegetables a challenge. As it does in other Latino neighborhoods where it operates, Northgate provides a popular free shuttle.
In many low-income communities, obesity rates have skyrocketed. Some experts believe that improving access to healthy food will enable people to eat more healthily and avoid obesity. But others say that improving access is only part of the solution and that education is key to changing the way people eat.
In Boyle Heights, with a 6.52-square-mile area, there are only four large supermarkets. These include two Food 4 Less markets, a Vallarta and the new Northgate González. The Northgate González store took the place of another market that closed called Super A.
Monica Leal, a Boyle Heights resident, used to shop at Super A, and now shops at the Northgate González market. She says the new market offers lower cost and better quality produce.
Another fan is District 14 Councilman Huízar.
“I grew up in Boyle Heights and live there today with my family,” he says. “The Northgate González is by far the best supermarket we’ve had at the Soto location.”
Because of the lack of accessibility to healthy and affordable food, Boyle Heights is one of the communities that has been classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert.” According to the USDA, this means that residents live one mile or more from a supermarket in an urban area, or 10 miles or more in a rural area.
According to a 2011 report from California Watch, an investigative journalism group founded funded by the Center for Investigative Journalism, nearly 1 million Californians live in food deserts, 45 percent of them low-income. Nationally, USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts, more than half of them low-income.
The issue of food deserts has become a political hot topic, partly because of First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy. The First Lady is behind the Let’s Move! movement, whose goal is to reduce obesity by bringing more markets into low-income neighborhoods, improving school lunches, educating parents and promoting exercise.
In Los Angeles County, the adult obesity rate has increased 74 percent in the last 14 years, according to the county health department. Between 1997 and 2011, the obesity rate increased 99 percent for Latinos in the county. Obesity rates are also higher than average for L.A. County residents with less formal education and lower household incomes.
As a community, Boyle Heights has many residents with characteristics that put them at higher risk for obesity. A largely Latino community, nearly 69 percent of residents have less than a high school education. According to city-data.com, 33.5 percent of the households have incomes below the poverty level.
While food deserts and obesity rates have been linked in low-income communities, new studies show that the issue is complicated. Some studies have found that even when a new market opens in a community, it may not change people’s eating habits.
Mary M. Lee, deputy director for Policylink, a national research and action institute aimed at advancing economic and social equity, says that it’s difficult to prove what impact a new market makes in community.
“We haven’t seen very (many) studies done after these stores have opened,” she says. Lee adds that having the stores is only part of the equation. It’s up to people to “know how to make a good choice” regarding food.
While some researchers have looked at the number of markets in the area, others have examined the number of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Communities with a large number of unhealthy food outlets are sometimes called “food swamps” instead of food deserts.
One 2011 California study in the Social Science Journal found nearly twice as many fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in lower income neighborhoods as in wealthier ones.
Whether a community has too many choices or not enough may just be part of the problem. Mandy Graves, a Cal State Los Angeles professor and registered dietitian, says the availability of transportation greatly affects residents’ access to healthy food.
Graves, whose research focuses on food deserts, says that in Los Angeles,“If you don’t have a car, or you’re just running out real quick to the market in the corner, I think the options are horrible. It depends on who you are, where you live, if you have transportation, and how educated you are.”
Graves believes that nutrition education should be a mandated part of the curriculum in school.
Lee also points to education as a way to get people to develop healthier eating habits. She says what needs to be done is to “educate people about food, what effect it can have on your health, and how to eat well… have the stores there and know how to make a good choice.”
Yazmin Nunez is a junior in Roosevelt High School’s School of Law and Government and one of the founders of Boyle Heights Beat.