By Jared Zhao
This past Thursday, our class went out to 24th Street Elementary and experienced the magic of being in a community garden. As a Title 1 school where the vast majority, 96%, of children qualify for government assistance, the garden provides an opportunity for the students to gain exposure to fruits and vegetables that they otherwise wouldn’t see at home. Even for us, as USC students from generally much more privileged backgrounds, the garden provided new experiences. Many of us tried sorrel and mulberries for the first time. The fact that we could just pick our own healthy snacks from the various plants in the garden showed to me just how powerful this initiative could be for children growing up in a food desert like South Los Angeles.
Before I go any further into discussions about food deserts, I would like to discuss how systemic racism influences something even as seemingly unrelated as diet. There are wide racial disparities surrounding diet, even at the level of farmland ownership—just 8% of the nation’s farmers are nonwhite and they produce just 3% of all agricultural value from 2.8% of all farm acreage (Holt-Giménez and Harper). Similar disparities favoring white Americans can be seen in the prevalence of diabetes, percentage of people living under the poverty line, and percentages of people suffering from food insecurity. These trends are a product of “un legado histórico que privilegia a un grupo de personas por sobre otros” (Holt-Giménez and Harper). This historical legacy, going as far back as the colonization of native lands to slavery to Jim Crow to redlining and gentrification today, has laid the foundation for the economic and geographic inequality that are at the center of the fight for food justice.
We see examples of this inequality around USC. Like Ron Finley says in his TED talk, South L.A. is defined by “liquor stores, fast food, vacant lots.” This trend extends from coast to coast, from South L.A. to the Bronx. As Karen Washington writes from New York, “Marginalized communities are surrounded by a charity-based, subsidized food system. In addition, on every block there’s a fast-food restaurant” (2020). When I’m in a rush for a quick lunch, I often stop by the Taco Bell across the street from the west entrance of campus. Besides other college students, the vast majority of diners there are working-class people of color and their children. When fast food is the only affordable option nearby, it’s no surprise that the South L.A. region suffers from high obesity and diabetes rates. The Smart & Final right next to the Taco Bell has an alcoholic drinks section as big as the fresh produce section. Where is the healthy food? The only Trader Joes for miles exists at the USC Village, a prime example of gentrification and how marginalized communities are being priced out of their homes and away from affordable, healthy food.
If I were living in this area on a budget of $200 a month, I would live off of rice, chicken, eggs, and spinach. Smart & Final often has whole chicken breasts on sale for 2 or 3 dollars per pound. Rice costs another $12 for a 15-pound bag, which will last a month or two. Eggs cost roughly 3 to 4 dollars per dozen, and spinach costs about 2 dollars per bag at Trader Joes. The rest of my budget (~$125) would go towards buying seasonings, olive oil, pasta, fruits, bread, and cheese. I would naturally get sick of eating this food daily, but this is what I would eat if necessary. Access to a community garden would go a long way towards providing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement my diet.
I took this class because I wanted an excuse to finally explore Los Angeles and its amazing food culture. As a result, my favorite moments were those where we went out into the city, from exploring Olvera Street, seeing David Siqueiros’s mural, and eating sopes at Tirsa’s to our taco tour in Boyle Heights and our gardening adventure at 24th Street Elementary. I greatly enjoyed our discussions surrounding various social and cultural topics, especially authenticity, gentrification, and street vending. I loved how everyone in the class brought their own unique experiences and backgrounds into our class discussions. Another exciting aspect of the class was just how real every topic was. We would learn about the struggles of street venders, read articles such as the one about Merced Sanchez, and then we actually met her, heard her story, and tried her food. We would watch videos featuring restaurants like Milpa Grille and Guisados, then actually visit those restaurants and eat there. Experiences like these made the class so much more memorable and a defining part of my last semester at USC. I am happy that I got to share all of these moments with such a wonderful class, and I wish all of you the best in your future endeavors.
Finley, Ron. “A guerrilla gardener in South Central LA.” TED. February 2013. https://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerrilla_gardener_in_south_central_la/transcript?language=en
Holt-Giménez, Eric, and Breeze Harper. “Desmantelando el Racismo del Sistema Alimentario.” Food First. March 21, 2016. https://foodfirst.org/desmantelando-el-racismo-del-sistema-alimentario/
Washington, Karen. “Op-ed: How Urban Agriculture Can Fight Racism in the Food System.” Civil Eats. July 10, 2020. https://civileats.com/2020/07/10/op-ed-how-urban-agriculture-can-fight-racism-in-the-food-system/