Panel Talks Food Scarcity in L.A. Area

“When I arrived on campus, I was struck by how pervasive the ‘Claremont bubble’ was,” Pomona Student Union (PSU) member Nathalie Folkerts PO '16 said. “As I came to know a little bit more about the surrounding community, I realized that we are living in the middle of a food desert, yet, based on the campus climate and campus dialogue, you would have no idea.” 

Such thoughts compelled Folkerts to organize "No Food in L.A.: A Conversation about Food Access in the L.A. Area" on Oct. 2 in the Edmunds Ballroom of Pomona College's Smith Campus Center. The free event featured three panelists who discussed the lack of access to healthy food in many parts of the Los Angeles area and was mediated by Folkerts and her fellow PSU member Sana Kadri PO '16. Panelists included epidemiologist Alex Ortega, designer-turned-urban farmer Ron Finley and the director of policy and innovation at the L.A. Food Policy Council Clare Fox. 

The two terms used to describe areas that lack adequate food resources are food deserts and food swamps. While people who live in food deserts suffer a general lack of access to food, residents of food swamp areas have access to primarily fast food restaurants and corner stores. Both are usually a result of underinvestment in the development of impoverished areas and lead to undernourishment of the people living there.

Ortega explained that food access in low-income areas of L.A. has been a problem for a long time, but steps are just now being taken toward improving the situation. He works with a group of researchers, community members and high school students in the conversion of corner stores—which primarily sell primarily liquor, tobacco and very low-quality food—to sources of affordable healthy produce and other food items for underserved communities.

Reviving the health of a community is not as simple as dropping a health food store in it, however. Ortega suggested that a multi-level intervention is the best course of action. Such an effort translates to getting students involved in and excited about the projects, integrating law intervention to reduce crime in the area and empowering existing community leaders.

This method is generally much more effective than what Ortega calls the “SWAT team intervention,” in which professionals come into a community, revamp a corner store, bring in some produce and assume that the changes they brought will persist. It has been shown that such short-term fixes typically do not affect lasting change in food desert and food swamp communities.

Finley, known for fighting the city of Los Angeles for the right to grow food in his neighborhood, is a strong proponent of using such inter-community leadership to propel positive change. He gave a 2013 TED talk that helped promote accessibility to urban farming for underserved communities. 

“You have a stake in this neighborhood, so don’t wait for someone else to change it,” Finley said. 

Similarly, Folkerts stressed the importance of using our own influence to advocate progress. 

“Not only are we surrounded by food deserts, but as a college we have a huge purchasing power through our dining halls,” Folkerts said. “We truly have the power to effect change if we find a way to change how we do food here on campus. Whether we as a Pomona or 5C community decide to act on that is yet to be seen.”

“As a student group, we are often quick to blame ‘the administration’ for a lot of issues on campus, but I am a strong proponent of the idea that we as students have a huge amount of leverage in this school,” she added. 

Fox emphasized that people tend to get caught up in liabilities and political barriers, but these are often more flexible than one might think. If communities can move past those walls, she suggests, anything is possible—even universal access to healthy food.

“The speakers at the event not only touched on different ways students could engage with the school, but they help demonstrate that this sort of change is possible—if they can work to get the city of L.A. to change, then certainly we can work on our own change in our own way here on campus,” Folkerts said. “Food justice is something I care deeply about—food has the power to unite communities and change lives, yet we rarely give it the attention it deserves. I wanted to do something to try and increase this dialogue on campus.”

While the future of nutrition in the greater Los Angeles area has yet to be determined, the dialogue did succeed in bringing awareness of food scarcity to Claremont students.

“I honestly had no prior knowledge about food deserts in L.A., so I found just hearing about the work these speakers do interesting,” Ana Nunez PO ’17 said. “I came away with a better understanding of how food deserts affect low-income communities.”