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Panel seeks to use L.A.'s abundance of fresh food in fight against childhood obesity

The Food Policy Task Force proposes creating a regional food system that would allow low-income residents to buy locally produced food while keeping the dollars in the local economy.

October 04, 2010|By Mary MacVean

Los Angeles has both an astonishing choice of fresh, local food and a troubling childhood obesity rate. World-class farmers markets and neighborhoods with little access to fresh produce.

A new report seeks to change those disparities by recommending the creation of a regional food system that would increase low-income residents' access to healthy food and outlets for farmers' products while keeping more food dollars in the local economy.

The Food Policy Task Force established by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last fall makes more than 50 recommendations. Among them are getting food stamps accepted at all farmers markets in Los Angeles County and encouraging city and county institutions, including schools and hospitals, to buy more local food, said Robert Gottlieb, a task force member who is the director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.

The goals also include more far-reaching notions such as eliminating hunger in Los Angeles, addressing farm labor issues and creating a regional food hub where local farmers and other producers could do business. Where to locate the hub and how to fund and operate it still must be determined, Gottlieb said.

But change is imperative, several task force members said.

"The pendulum has swung so far out of balance, to this overly globalized, over-industrialized, over-centralized food system. Somehow we have to swing this pendulum back so we are more in control of our food," said Larry Yee, a task force member and advisor emeritus with UC Cooperative Extension.

The report does not estimate the cost of its proposals, and acknowledges that funding for new ideas is hard to come by, saying, "Leveraging existing resources, increasing participation in existing programs, and identifying outside funding mechanisms were of primary importance."

The task force report, "The Good Food for All Agenda," is being unveiled Wednesday night at a $100-a-ticket reception at Vibiana, the former cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. Dozens of well-known chefs have been paired with farmers to make food. The evening's proceeds go to Hunger Action Los Angeles and Sustainable Economic Enterprises-Los Angeles.

The initiative takes advantage of widespread concern about the rate of obesity (40% of middle schoolers are overweight or obese in L.A. County, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health), as well as the support for Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign.

"The obesity crisis is a symptom of how broken the food system is," said Evan Kleiman, the chef-owner of Angeli Caffe and a member of the task force.

The task force report aims to be a blueprint for a food policy council, a volunteer panel that is being recruited, primarily from those people who worked on the task force, said Paula Daniels, an L.A. public works commissioner who was on the task force.

There are food policy councils in dozens of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, New York and Detroit. Los Angeles established one in the 1990s, but it collapsed after a few years. This time, Gottlieb said, there is a greater momentum and deeper support for changes in the local food system.

These days, health is a major driver of interest in a regional food supply, Yee said. "People are starting to put two and two together again that good food equals good health. And that's becoming the incentive for people to search out better food, healthier food and so on."

South Los Angeles, the report noted, has one of the highest poverty rates (30%) in the area, as well as one of the highest obesity rates (35% of adults).

Task force member Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action L.A. said the report doesn't devote enough attention to low-income people "who are really at the bottom end of the spectrum in having access to good food, local food."

In 2009, one in 10 L.A. County residents received food assistance, according to the report.

Renee Guilbault, food and beverage director for Le Pain Quotidian and a member of the food policy task force, said there's plenty to attract business to the task force goals.

Research shows, she said, that when items are procured locally, 45 cents of every dollar remains in the local economy, compared with 15 cents for items procured elsewhere.

Her company, with 12 restaurants in Los Angeles, spends $6 million a year on agricultural products; if all of that was bought locally, that would pump $2.7 million back into the system, Guilbault said.

Daniels suggested another way to measure success.

"If we can see more produce being sold in low-income communities, more people being enrolled in the food stamp program and using that to buy produce, and if we can see more signs in the produce aisle about which farm the food came from, then I will feel like we made some headway," Daniels said.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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