Lack of grocery options leads to higher obesity rates in South, East LA

"Food deserts" have an impact on the health of residents in poorer communities.
Corey Bridwell/KPCC

Los Angeles has some of the best restaurants in the country and the city is considered a mecca for foodies and gourmands. Despite this reputation, vast swatches of L.A. are limited to few grocery options. These are L.A.'s "food deserts" and their lack of nutritional resources is reflected in the health of the people who live in them.

L.A.'s location, coupled with its vibrant ethnic communities, makes it a culinary crossroads. Positioned in what is arguably the country's richest agricultural state, the region boasts farmers’ markets and cutting-edge cuisine. Still, "food deserts" exist in L.A.

For residents in South Los Angeles, the rate of obesity is 34.4 percent, while for those living in West L.A. the rate is only 11.7 percent. The rate of obesity for teenagers in South L.A. is 19.6 percent; for teens in West L.A. it's 4.1 percent.

How is it that neighborhoods – in some cases just blocks apart – produce such varying degrees of health and nutrition? What are the contrasts in the health of these disparate neighborhoods, how did the nutritional gaps grow to be so wide, and what can be done about it?

In the '60s and '70s, the relatively affluent fled the inner city for the suburbs, and many supermarkets followed them. In a special beginning this week, KPCC’s "Patt Morrison" examines L.A.'s "food desert" conundrum, investigating the role played by "white flight."

After the 1992 riots, city government made it a priority to bring full-service grocery stores back to South and East L.A. neighborhoods, and though there were some successes, most of the stores that did open closed soon after. Now, there are 60 full-service grocery stores in South L.A. serving an average population of 22,156 residents per-store, compared to 57 stores in West L.A. that serve only 11,150 residents on average.

While the disparity in access to healthy food is undeniable, the potential solutions are more debatable – how can the city, and the residents of South and East L.A., attract grocery store chains? Why can't a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's turn a profit in traditionally underserved areas? If they build the markets, will the customers come?

To hear Patt's entire program focusing on "food deserts," tune in on Monday, July 26 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, July 27 1-2 p.m.