As city planners consider lifting a five-year-old ban on new fast-food vendors in South Los Angeles, urban gardening activists say it’s especially important to promote healthy eating habits by planting publicly available produce gardens on front lawns and city parkways.
On a recent Sunday, activists met at a South Los Angeles home to build such a garden.
“We are going to create a lifestyle for our garden recipients,” said Sachiko Speaks, who organized the LAGreenGrounds event.
“We’re not just installing these beautiful edible gardens and just leaving them. There’s so much involved with a person’s emotional state, their spiritual state, their nutrition, health and wellbeing. So we’re trying to create a lifestyle.”
At LAGreenGrounds’ “Dig-in” events, volunteers help property owners plant gardens in their yards and the city-owned parkway areas between sidewalk and street. The produce grown there is offered free to anyone who cares to pick it.
In addition to building a sense of community, the goal is to turn around fundamental dietary choices. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, more than a quarter of the children in South Los Angeles are considered obese, as are nearly a third of adults. The area has the county’s highest rate of consumption for sugary drinks. Some 70 percent of the region’s restaurants are fast-food outlets, nearly double the concentration in the rest of Los Angeles.
Some recent research has cast doubt on how much a person’s health can be improved by dietary changes. In October, for instance, federal researches announced that they had been unable to show diet and weight loss can prevent heart attacks and strokes in overweight and obese people with Type 2 diabetes.
LAGreenGrounds co-founder Ron Finley, who drew international attention to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables early this year with a well-received talk at the TED conference, said the evidence of the links between diet and health is clear.
“Have you ever been to Brentwood and seen used wheelchairs on the street? All that represents to me is that somebody died in that chair. And now there’s another space for somebody else to die,” he said.
“I’m no scientist. I’m not even no academic. I got common sense, though. I know what I see.”
Other health activists deplored a proposal by planning officials to lift restrictions on fast-food restaurants in a portion of South Los Angeles.
Five years ago, city officials imposed a ban on new fast food restaurants when another such outlet was already in business within half a mile. At an April 11 public meeting, planning officials proposed lifting that restriction. After speakers at the meeting vehemently opposed the suggestion, the planning officials withdrew it. Still, Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director of non-profit health advocacy group Community Health Councils, said she remains concerned.
“When you live in a community where you have no options, where you’re kind of locked in because you don’t have personal transportation, and all you have is exposure to food that are high in sodium and sugar and high calorie, and just processed foods, it has a detrimental effect on your health,” she said.
Community Health Councils has called for additional restrictions for South Los Angeles, including a requirement that fast food restaurants be located at least half a mile from schools, parks, playgrounds, child care centers, recreation facilities, and other facilities that serve children.
But Yang Lu, a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, questioned the effectiveness of prohibitions in changing dietary habits.
“If you have a ban for however many years, if people want fast foods, it still will be available,” she said. “They just go to existing food outlets. Addressing only the supply won’t remove the problem.”
Finley said projects like the recent garden planting are aimed at reversing demand.
“People don’t know what food looks like in its natural form,” he said. “Unless it’s in the store and labeled, they don’t know that this is cabbage, this is broccoli, this is chard. But gardening changes your molecular structure. And if I’m eating food from a garden, why would I want to eat something genetically modified or something like that?”