There is beauty in Los Angeles’ far-reaching geography: it is composed of many small pockets of towns and communities that sometimes define themselves through food. As a city of immigrants, food is often a means of keeping traditions alive, maintaining an identity to call their own, and bringing people together. In Los Angeles, these elements not only thrive, but they intersect with a variety of efforts that are trying to make our food system equitable. At the Upswell conference, which had its debut in Los Angeles in mid-November, thought leaders and changemakers from all over the country joined talks, workshops, and dinners that covered important topics like food equity. I had the privilege of moderating a panel on food equity at the Equitas Academy Dinner, and I wanted to share what I learned.
The food justice movement was a new subject to a lot of the fellows in attendance who were visiting from all over. The night started with plant-based food from Todo Verde. Its founder, Jocelyn Ramirez, joined the panel conversation alongside Iosefa Alofaituli, Regional Director of Opportunity Fund in Southern California; Mikaela Randolph, President of SoLA Food Coop; and Christine Hasircoglu, Director of Operations at Everytable. Over the course of an hour, we discussed the importance of learning about food deserts, educating consumers to eat healthier, and strategies to empower entrepreneurs and workers that contribute to the greater food equity movement.
From the conversation, it was clear that the food equity movement is advancing in Los Angeles. Additionally, there is still room for improvement in all stages of the food chain- from the farm worker growing the produce to the consumer choosing a healthier meal. The panel reflected on the progress so far and multiple ways to achieve food equity:
- Partnerships to Advance Equitable Food-Oriented Policy – There is no silver bullet to achieving an equitable food system: it must be addressed from cultural, economic, and political angles. Each panelist utilizes partnerships to advance shared models that help them achieve their missions in their organizations and the greater movement. A good example that was featured in the panel is the LA Food Policy Council’s efforts on making healthy food accessible and affordable through collaborative initiatives such as the LA Street Vendor Campaign, workshops, and technical assistance for the community. Jocelyn shared that partnerships with the community foster a culture of inclusivity in the food equity conversation. Once people start becoming more aware of ways to make food healthier, the message passes on from person to person. Partnerships help accelerate this process.
- Access to Capital for Food Systems – Food businesses that drive the culture creation of this expansive city faces the challenge of financial sustainability and access to capital. The panel highlighted one possible solution: offering micro-loans targeted to small business owners. Organizations such as Opportunity Fund work with many food entrepreneurs in the LA area that want to make their businesses sustainable. Iosefa noted that he works with more food businesses in LA than he did while working for Opportunity Fund in the Bay area. He credits Los Angeles’ geographic space, leaving more room for food businesses to flourish. As a result, Los Angeles thrives in a city that creates opportunities for its culturally rich food industry.
- Options for the Consumer- Many communities around Los Angeles live in food deserts, with little options for healthy food usually found in grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants with little to no processed food. Community members in food deserts may not have the time to venture outside to look for healthy options, and if they do, they may not be able to afford it. Businesses like Everytable address that challenge through their creative business model: they make healthy salads and bowls and price them according to the neighborhoods they serve. Stores in low-income communities have lower prices as compared to stores in wealthier communities. Their model challenges the stigma that healthy food is only accessible to those in affluent communities, and incentivizes the consumer to rethink their daily meals now that they have more options.
- Teaching Healthy Alternatives – Not everyone can open up a food business with healthy options, so another way to create food accessibility is by working with existing businesses in food deserts to offer healthier alternatives and teach community members how to make healthier food choices. At COMPRA Foods, LURN’s produce delivery initiative, we challenge the notion that corner stores only sell junk food and liquor: we work to make produce accessible through cooperative purchasing, which creates opportunities for both the business and the consumer to learn about healthy eating. On the panel, Jocelyn shared with the audience her work to educate her community on healthy eating. Through a lens of “decolonizing” our diets, she shares recipes that use plant-based ingredients and sparks conversations about food choices and the health of our communities. These conversations expand from a reflection of one’s own eating habits, and grows into a larger dialogue that elevates our communities’ food culture and health.
- Responding to Community Input – When asked, community members often have opinions on what they would like to see available in their local businesses. Unfortunately, customers are rarely engaged in this way. To address this, Mikaela shared how the SoLA Food Cooperative offers community members an opportunity to own the business through a paid membership and a chance to provide their input in the decision making of the business. In this model, the community is a crucial stakeholder to the conversation of what is offered, and the democratic principles of the business model give the worker a greater voice.
- Hire Local & Support Workers – Workers in the food industry face many challenges such as a livable wage and stable work hours. Therefore, business owners in the food industry need to make it a goal to hire local and implement models that engage the community they are part of to bring the best service and products. The panelists shared the importance of hiring local workers in their food equity driven businesses because they contribute to the everyday operations in the workplace and discover the healthier options they can share with their families at home.
Los Angeles’ food cultures thrive because Angelenos realize there are many ways of building community through food. The City has a great opportunity to achieve an equitable food system if it prioritizes partnerships, making capital accessible to food entrepreneurs, teaching healthy alternatives, prioritizing community input and supporting local workers. All in all, the Upswell panel on food equity resulted in fruitful conversations and strategies for the Upswell fellows to take to their communities.