What Will it Take to Quench Long Beach’s Food Desert, Food Insecurity?

May. 29, 2018 / By and

Above, Kelsey Forster, the leader for the “Green Team” of Long Beach’s Office of Sustainability, waters and inspects one of the crops growing in the garden, collard greens. All photos: Lilly Nguyen

April showers bring May flowers, and with spring in Long Beach came a new planting season for the city’s widening swath of community gardens and urban farms.

There are now 20 community and urban farms active in Long Beach, according to the new “Food Oasis LB Interactive Map” compiled by Long Beach Fresh, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the local food economy.

The city has had the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Program (UAIZ) instated since late 2017, offering vacant lot owners tax cuts for providing space for small urban gardens and farms to flourish. The city itself has its own urban, community garden. The Civic Center Edible Garden, a program that educates civilians on how to use their urban spaces effectively, is maintained by the Office of Sustainability and temporarily located in the Civic Center Plaza off Ocean Blvd.

The garden partners with FoodFinders, a multi-regional food bank and food rescue program based in Lakewood, to distribute its seasonal crops and, more recently, focused on donating its efforts to Plymouth West, a Section 8 apartment complex in downtown Long Beach.

Policies like UAIZ come in direct response to city disparities in fresh, locally sourced food access. In North Long Beach, citizens had struggled to find fresh food due in part to issues of accessibility and value. But what was once a dry food desert continues to burgeon with crop swaps and the growth of farmers’ markets. Food advocates suggest the shift is partly due to the rise of “market match,” a program that gives extra money to those with CalFresh and WIC — formerly known as food stamps — to purchase fresh produce, to “[empower] low-income shoppers to make healthy food choices by overcoming financial barriers.”

“Market match” and CalFresh EBT is now accepted at some farmers’ markets in Long Beach, including Long Beach’s certified downtown farmers’ market, the Houghton Park Farmers’ Market and the North Long Beach Farmers’ Market which accept up to $10 in market match coupons per visit.

Diana Hazas, the intern for the Office of Sustainability, is planting peppers to replace the crops that have been harvested. The plants will be transplanted into the garden itself once they have sprouted.

Yet, in spite of improvements, issues remain.

The Civic Center Edible Garden has been closed to public access since its move up to the Main Library’s rooftop because of recent construction, but Kelsey Forster, the lead for Long Beach’s Office of Sustainability “Green Team,” said her staff, volunteers, and interns from Pacific Gateway — an at-risk youth employment agency — have continued to work on producing crops for donation.

“We have these young adults who have grown up in really urban areas,” said Forster. “Some of them have never been able to see food grow before, or they’ve grown up in food deserts.”

A food desert is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

According to a 2015 report by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, food insecurity affected more than half a million households in the county during 2010. The report also states that the prevalence of food insecurity affects 33.5 percent of households with children and 28 percent without. Long Beach is considered to be a part of the South Bay Service Planning Area, where, the report notes, it has the highest prevalence of food insecurity at 36.9 percent in 2011.

Diana Lara, vice-president of operations for FoodFinders, speculates the food insecurity arises from the high living costs in the greater Los Angeles areas: “[The number of food-insecure people] hasn’t dropped — the economy has gotten better, jobs have gone up, but you still have a lot of people struggling. When you’re working minimum wage and paying an expensive rent, things start to get hard.”

Despite there being nearly a decade-long history of work, activists find that the food disparities between low-income neighborhoods and the increasingly developed epicenters still remain unsolved, much to their chagrin. And much of the issue comes back to a lack of funding.

“A lot of people think that [community gardens] just happen magically, but bringing a garden to your community is very hard work and you’re required to make it financially sustainable after,” said Tony Damico, co-director of LB Fresh.

Paying for the infrastructure to set up a garden can be anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 for a “small” project, Damico said. Another issue is that the longevity of some contracts can be too short — five years in the case for the UAIZ program, arising problems for both gardeners and contractors if the garden runs out of funds before it is able to sustain itself. Other times, it might just be a matter of uprooting when lot owners decide to sell the property.

That was the case for the Wrigley Village Garden anyways.

The garden closed in 2016 when Long Beach Organic’s (LBO) lease ended and property owner Annette LaBarca sold the lot on Pacific Avenue. The garden served 23 households, providing organic and fresh produce. LaBarca donated to LBO to help cover moving expenses. The garden was moved to 10th Street in the same year, thanks to local businessman Michael Wylie who runs Park Pacific Tower, a nonprofit that helps provide low-income seniors find affordable housing.

This, compounded with rising property costs in Long Beach, makes it difficult for community gardens and urban farms to plant their roots and intervene in food deserts throughout the city.

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Rent in Long Beach has increased by 4 percent in the last year and the shortage of housing in both the city and Los Angeles County at-large only continues to drive costs skyward. While efforts to introduce gardens and farmers’ markets in Long Beach have worked to close the issue of “access” in food deserts, the USDA conceded in a 2016 article that the accessibility is only one factor in a greater issue of hunger in the country. Factors like cost and community also contribute to the declining dietary health in both the city and nationally.

Damico agreed, adding that there are a number of other factors like competition from larger corporations in local markets make the issue much more difficult to resolve than by simply increasing accessibility.

“I talk to restaurant owners who say things like, ‘People are just lazy,’ or ‘if they can spend so much money on soda, then they could just spend more money on certain vegetables.’” Damico added, “I think those people fail to understand the nuance that influences [what] people experience in making these choices.”

Trump’s “American Harvest” — Preservatives aplenty in a box near you

Long Beach’s good foods movement is peaking at an interesting time. At the federal level, the Trump administration proposed the idea of “America’s Harvest Box” in early February in an effort to cut down the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program costs by 27.4 percent as well as cut down Section 8 housing, like that of Plymouth West, by 20.1 percent. The original budget for the program already averages at approximately $1.40 per meal, according to Senate Budget Committee staffer Bobby Kogan.

The plan has seen little support in Congress and opponents of the proposal have suggested that
Trump’s SNAP overhaul and “harvest boxes” aren’t feasible and are more distractions. But if done, it would ground $85 billion in cuts to reality.

The boxes are reported to contain non-perishables; not containing produce or fresh food due to the small frame of time that vegetables, or say, milk can be consumed before food-borne illnesses may arise. Lara, of FoodFinders, expressed concerns on the nutritional contents of the boxes. She said that FoodFinders receives a lot of non-perishable donations: “a bag of dry milk, a box of cereal, a chunk of Velveeta cheese, a few canned items, a stick of butter and, maybe, rice” —  foods that sustain but don’t help nutritionally in the long run.

Concerns have also arose from parents of picky children or children with allergies, who might not be able to eat from the box. Arguments surrounding the nutritional content of the “Harvest Box” and concerns in its potential to increase diet-related illnesses like obesity and Diabetes among low-income families have come out, just as arguments in favor of the boxes have.

The Trump administration is currently considering additional prerequisites like drug testing and strengthened work requirements for SNAP recipients.

Lara, along with swaths of health officials and advocates, however, remain unconvinced that the “America’s Harvest Box” will do any good if it does come to realization through Congress.

Continuing to provide

While there has not been a significant increase or decline in food-insecure households in Long Beach with the introduction of sustainability programs, Damico and Lara encourage people to contribute to gardens and donate to organizations like FoodFinders in order to continue “feeding” into a larger conversation about food.

“Any donation affects people struggling with food insecurity… Every little bit adds up,” said Lara. “People come in saying, ‘It’s not much, but it’s all I can afford to give,’ but if you add that on top of everything else that’s been given, and it’s a lot.”

For information on how to start a community garden in your neighborhood, contact Kelsey Forster at [email protected] or (562) 570-5927 for class times. To join a community garden or urban farm, refer to the list posted on LB Fresh or the map linked on the Civic Center Edible Garden’s website to contact a local garden.

CORRECTION: The city has had the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Program (UAIZ) instated since late 2017, not 2013 as previously stated.

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Lilly Nguyen

Lilly Nguyen introduces herself as a journalist and storyteller by trade. Master of show tune car karaoke by passion. A graduate of Cal State Long Beach's journalism program, she can be found running around Long Beach and Orange County with a recorder and a camera in hand.

CSULB Enterprise Reporters

VoiceWaves partners with the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) each semester to mentor students' community reporting. The Journalism 495 Enterprise Reporting in Diverse Communities course challenges students to build on their journalism skills covering various neighborhoods throughout Long Beach, including North Long Beach, Central Long Beach, Downtown, and the Westside.