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Mapping Healthy Food in an L.A. "Desert"

January 24, 2013

Many inner-city neighborhoods lack affordable, healthy food options and often have convenient but unhealthy fast food places on every corner instead. Things are turning around in South L.A., though. Mapping the changes are Benjamin Stokes and Garrett Broad, doctoral candidates at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles who combine their studies with their interest in helping people, regardless of where they live, have access to local fresh, healthy food. "We're committed to doing a kind of public scholarship that advances the social justice aims that we are committed to as both scholars and activists," says Garrett. They listen to local residents and activists, which doesn't always happen in low-income communities and communities of color. They sat still for a few minutes recently to answer questions about their work in South L.A., including helping the community develop its own Healthy Food Map, and organizing and recording a unique FoodPrint Walk. How did you get involved in healthy local food campaigning in South L.A.? Garrett: I've had a long-standing interest in food and environmental issues, so when I first came to Los Angeles, I sought out organizations that were doing work to improve healthy food access and bolster the environmental sustainability of local and regional food systems. I was excited to find that there were a number of organizations -- full of dedicated, talented, and passionate people -- working on a variety of projects to do just that. This was especially true in the South L.A. area, a community often referred to as a "food desert" on account of its lack of affordable, healthy food options and the prevalence of unhealthy fast foods. Over the last few years, I have used my research as a way to better understand, document, and facilitate the functioning of initiatives that are working to transform this food system into something more healthy, equitable, and sustainable. I've worked closely as a researcher and collaborator with one of the leading partners on the Healthy Food Map, Community Services Unlimited -- a "food justice" organization that uses urban agriculture and critical food system education as a way to train local youth, create jobs, and build the local economy. The Healthy Food Map was created by local people. Do you think that will encourage the community to use it and learn about healthy eating options? Benjamin: A map that is created by the community has a special kind of legitimacy, and can be more powerful than many "expert" food maps. On our map, the colorful photos were taken with ordinary cellphone cameras, and come from food walks and bike rides that our partners led in South Los Angeles. By involving residents, we turn mapping into community-building. There is nothing secret about the items on the map -- residents are using this visual approach to learn from each other. Learning about local, healthy food in South L.A. Why is the Healthy Food Map needed? Benjamin: Many people think maps are about finding things. That's true, and...

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