Poor Neighborhoods Suffer from Bad Food Choices
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.
Some health officials call obesity America's number one health problem. Aggressive marketing and lifestyle can influence food choices, but where people live can also have a big impact on their diet.
Sarah Varney visited a Southern California neighborhood where the lack of healthy food has taken its toll on the residents.
SARAH VARNEY reporting:
Hollywood screenwriters would have you think South Central Los Angeles is a wasteland ruled by gangs and guns, but it's really just filled with people like Reverend Romey Lilly(ph), age 59, and his friend Barbara Taylor(ph), retired, who take weekly trips to the grocery store to stock up on Stouffer's frozen dinners, Jimmy Dean sausages, and milk.
(Soundbite of grocery scanner)
Rev. ROMEY LILLY (Los Angeles, California): This is - actually, this is usually my normal shopping day, which would be either Monday or Tuesday, when I can get over to Ms. Barbara Taylor, who's also a member of Central Baptist. And she usually brings me to the store.
VARNEY: Reverend Lilly doesn't have a car, and it takes him 45 minutes on two bus lines just to get to this grocery store. Like many people in his predominately black, low-income neighborhood, Lilly is diabetic, and the discount food warehouse near his home doesn't stock much in the way of low-fat and sugar-free items. So once a week, Barbara picks him up, and they drive three miles past rows of modest stucco homes, neatly trimmed lawns, and check advance stores to the closest Ralphs.
Ms. BARBARA TAYLOR: Okay, we're approaching the meat section, and he's going to pick out something that's lean, with not a lot of fat, because the fat will run his blood sugar up.
VARNEY: Reverend Lilly sheepishly admits he doesn't exercise much, but he is an avowed soldier in the war on sugar and fat.
Rev. LILLY: I used to have a gold card at all the soul food restaurants in Los Angeles. All the waitresses know me. But I had to change that, you know, and not do that.
VARNEY: But when he runs low on food - in between his weekly trips to the supermarket - Reverend Lilly walks four blocks to a row of fast food restaurants or a mini-mart that offers little, if any, fresh produce. This landscape so lacking in nourishment was created over the last four decades.
In the 1960s and 1970s, white middle-class families left for the suburbs, and the supermarkets followed. An underclass in South Los Angeles remained, largely ignored until racial and economic tensions surfaced in the L.A. riots in 1992.
South Central Los Angeles hemorrhaged retail stores. A much-touted economic redevelopment effort promised 32 new supermarkets, but only a handful have appeared. So it may be what grocery stores need are incentives to locate and stay in low-income neighborhoods.
A state senate bill sponsored by Elaine Alquist - a Democrat from San Jose -would do just that, by awarding grants and loans to retail food markets who agree to sell healthy, affordable food in places like Vernice Hanken's(ph) South L.A. neighborhood. As Vernice walks into a neighborhood Food 4 Less on the corner of Western and Slauson, she's greeted by a towering wall of soda. A small produce section is in the back, beyond rows of jumbo pudding packs and 25-pound bags of granulated sugar. Vernice picks up a Home Run fruit pie, a pastry the size of a cell phone.
Ms. VERNICE HANKEN: You know, how many kids are eating one for breakfast and having another one when they get home? And that's 50 percent of your fat right there. Sixteen grams of sugar, eight grams of mono-saturated fat.
VARNEY: Vernice worries her neighborhood may wind up with more discount food warehouses like this one. Under a current state and city efforts, that's exactly what could happen. None of the proposals require stores cut back on their sugar-fueled inventories, which leaves residents facing yet another towering wall of soda. For NPR News, I'm Sara Varney.
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