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Health Food Trend Increasing In South Los Angeles

Jamie Oliver Big Rig Mobile Kitchen Classroom | Local Food Champions with the MLK Choosing Wellness Group after a class session in South Los Angeles. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)

Northgate Gonzalez Market | Produce department. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)

Northgate Gonzalez Market | TERESA BLANCO: Describing Viva La Salud health tags. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)
Northgate Gonzalez Market
South Los Angeles location.
Jamie Oliver Big Rig Mobile Kitchen Classroom
South Los Angeles stop on nationwide tour.
The Children's Clinic
Greater Long Beach community location.

By Michael Nystrom

Customers weave through aisles of fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce department of the Northgate Gonzalez Market in South Los Angeles. For some, this is the only place nearby to pick up quality, fresh produce at an affordable price.

After nine years of planning, the Northgate Gonzalez Market opened last April and is one of the few full-service supermarkets in South Los Angeles committed to offering the community healthy, affordable options, fresh produce and health and wellness programs.

“The area is mostly made up of low income people, so we wanted to prove with sales that we can bring quality to low income families here,” said Victor Gonzalez, SVP of marketing, Northgate Gonzalez Market. “We’re having a great response on all the items on the healthy side, which was a surprise to us.”

South Los Angeles is composed mostly of low income Latino and African American families, and an estimated 39 percent of adults and 55 percent of teens in South Los Angeles are considered overweight or obese.

These statistics cannot be attributed to a single source, but rather a multitude of interconnected reasons that prevent individuals from accessing healthy alternatives and adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Access to healthy food options is considered one of the leading reasons for a poor diet in Los Angeles’ underserved communities. Gonzalez attributes the current lack of healthy food in South Los Angeles to an absence of quality and affordable prices in the fresh department and is hoping to change the landscape with their health and wellness program, Viva La Salud.    

“We need to offer the community, schools, and the children of our neighborhood healthy eating options, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with Viva La Salud,” Albert Ayala, store director, Northgate Gonzalez Market. 

One of the key features of Viva La Salud is the tagging system that displays nutrition facts about products in both Spanish and English.

Northgate Gonzalez pays a third party company to analyze nutrition information for each item the store carries. Depending on the nutritional values, the product will be labeled accordingly with easy to read graphics that displays the nutritional benefits.  

“We don’t want to misguide people, because people come to our store with different levels of education so we want to make it simple as possible and not confuse people,” said Teresa Blanco, Wellness program manager, Northgate Gonzalez Markets.  

The produce department is one of the key sectors in the Northgate Gonzalez operation and is an anchor in the new store.

“It’s difficult for many consumers and household members in this area before we came to find produce in their communities,” said Blanco.  “They’d have to go by bus to other areas to buy heathy options, and now it’s local.” 

Northgate Gonzalez purchases produce from the same vendors as many of the large supermarket chains and therefore has the same quality.  They also have a five-day guarantee on all produce.   Their organic produce pilot program buys their produce through the same distributor as Whole Foods and Bristol Farms.

The Northgate Gonzalez Market was funded by the California FreshWorks Fund, a public-private partnership intended to bring additional forms of grocery retail to “food deserts” in California.  

“The conversation and idea for FreshWorks really came out of South Los Angeles community groups who were looking to address the food conditions down here and realized the need for greater capital and greater ability for local grocers to expand,” said Daniel Tellalian, principal of Emerging Markets, Inc., a company that deploys the capital for the California FreshWorks Fund. “Out of that came the FreshWorks fund and here we are full circle with a gorgeous new supermarket opened here in South Los Angeles.”

Access to healthy alternatives is one of the three aspects of food and social impacts the California FreshWorks Fund addresses.  In South Los Angeles, many factors are preventing more health food sources from entering the area.

“There’s a number of companies and older grocers who are not interested in going into lower income communities or communities of color,” said Tellalian. “I think that independent more forward thinking companies like Northgate are very excited to be here and are not scared and see an opportunity in a place like this.”

There are also problems with real estate, in creating a proper place where a supermarket can thrive and have access to capital.  FreshWorks is one source hoping to build, expand and bankroll those projects in South Los Angeles.

With new supermarkets in South Los Angeles like Northgate Gonzalez, healthy food is becoming more and more accessible.  Education and teaching people how to implement these healthy alternatives is just as important as availability.     

The Jamie Oliver Big Rig Teaching Kitchen is a mobile kitchen classroom that brings free classes and food education to underserved communities.  

The Big Rig is funded by The California Endowment, and South Los Angeles is one of the 14 “food desert” communities in California that have a lack of fresh food access, high levels of diabetes, obesity and other diet related illnesses.  

In May the Big Rig stopped in South Los Angeles at the Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center and taught groups including students and staff from the Barack Obama Charter School, the King Drew Medical Magnet High School and other wellness and diabetes groups from the area.  

“With the mobile kitchen classrooms we are going into communities offering these free healthy cooking classes to affect change in the community to get people to start thinking differently about how they eat,” said Scott Bottemer, Big Rig tour manager.  

Each lesson lasts one hour from start to finish, and the students prep ingredients, cook, eat and wash the dishes themselves.

“With the youth groups, and just watching them come in and cook something for the very first time with their own two hands, giving them food knowledge, which is the education part, which empowers them,” said Bottemer.  “It provides them with inspiration to know what they’re putting in their bodies and know how to cook, giving them life changing cooking skills.”

Jamie Oliver’s goal with the Big Rig is to “get back to scratch cooking”.  With the rise of fast food restaurants and processed foods, the amount of time spent cooking in the kitchen has decreased and the associated negative health effects have increased.  

“You go now to any major grocery store chain, and the chip aisle is a mile long and you can say the same thing about the soda aisle, the frozen food section, which is now not just one aisle but multiple aisles,” said Bottemer. “The proliferation of fast food restaurants, they’re on every corner in any city big or small in the state of California, and it’s coupled with the ‘we’re too busy’ mindset.”

The Big Rig uses local community chefs and ambassadors in each city on the tour to teach the food education courses.  Once the truck leaves, they become “food champions” and a resource for the community.

Carolyne Snow, a Los Angeles food champion and Jamie Oliver food ambassador, is a culinary professional with an emphasis on sustainable, nutritious and farm-to-table practices.  

According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 39 percent of South Los Angeles children ate fast food three or more times in the last week, compared to 18 percent across California.  

The price-to-food ratio is one reason many people turn to fast food over healthy alternatives, but Snow argues the opposite is true. According to Snow, processed foods lack nutrition when compared to organically grown produce.  

Due to a lower nutritional content per gram in processed foods, it takes a higher volume to meet the body’s nutritional needs—therefore supplying the body with excess calories that cause negative health effects.

“If you’re having to buy huge qualities of food to get the nutrition you need versus a small quantity of food, you find that it really isn’t a huge price difference,” said Snow. “Yes you may be getting a ton more packaged food, but it’s not necessarily good for you.”

For Maria Navar, a diabetic nurse practitioner and member of the MLK Choosing Wellness Group, the classes on the Big Rig taught her about real ingredients and time management when cooking.  

“I’ve learned about the ingredients that go with the meals, from the basics, like using real vegetables into what we are preparing,” said Navar.

Her group hosts lectures every Thursday that range from healthy food topics such as portion sizes to dietary requirements.

“I believe Los Angeles’ problem is portion size, a lot of carbohydrates, with our wellness programs we mention portion sizes, kinds of foods, how to cook it,” said Navar.  

While education, availability and price are all factors restricting healthy food access in South Los Angeles, demand for healthy alternatives and the willingness to change unhealthy habits are also necessary.

“You really have to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” said Elisa A. Nicholas, M.D., M.S.P.H., chief executive officer of The Children’s Clinic, an innovative health care approach that contributes to a healthy community in the South Los Angeles area.  “[healthy alternatives] are still a choice but if you don’t even have access to fresh fruits and vegetables you won’t be able to make that choice.”

Adding healthy alternatives in underserved communities can be difficult because many retailers need to see demand for a product before they will carry them, but in order for people to buy healthy food, they need to first be exposed to them.  

Also, for corner stores to start carrying health foods, the store infrastructure has to change. Fresh fruits and vegetables have a shorter shelf life than junk and snack food, and oftentimes refrigeration is needed to preserve the product for a longer period of time.  

“You look at a store in South Los Angeles and many times their produce is not the same quality as that same store would have in an upper middle class area where people would demand fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Nicholas. “You have to address habits, you have to teach skills, you have to change demand.”

Despite the current lack of healthy foods in South Los Angeles compared to surrounding areas, Nicholas has noticed positive health food trends in Los Angeles over the past decade.  

Her doctors at The Children’s Clinic use motivational interviewing and goal setting to identify and change negative dietary habits, and she attributes the media as a large influence in many consumer’s lives.  Because there are only a few Spanish-speaking television stations, the available channels have a high level of penetrance within the low income Latino community.

“They’re getting that message from the media, from the physician, hopefully getting that message in the schools from their P.E. or heath or kindergarten teacher, so the more people giving the same message, my dream is to have every nonprofit in town give the same message,” said Nicholas.

Her message: decrease the amount of white and processed foods in your diet and eat naturally colored foods—gummy bears don’t count.

Reach Associate News Editor Michael Nystrom here. Follow him on Twitter here.

Jamie Oliver Big Rig Mobile Kitchen Classroom | Local Food Champion Carolyne Snow leads a demonstration. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)

Northgate Gonzalez Market | Produce department. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)

Jamie Oliver Big Rig Mobile Kitchen Classroom | Local Food Champion working with students. (Michael Nystrom, Neon Tommy)