Pasadena’s Health Department, local organizations and community gardens aim to flood the city’s ‘food deserts’ with affordable, quality food
By Justin Chapman 04/17/2014
As head of the city of Pasadena’s Public Health Department, Dr. Eric Walsh has worked tirelessly to combat issues associated with ensuring Pasadena provides food justice to its people.
“When we talk about food justice, we’re talking about an individual’s rights, their access to affordable, healthy, accessible foods,” Walsh explained. “It shouldn’t matter where you live or what neighborhood you’re in. In every neighborhood, you should have access to the foods that’s going to build your body and mind.”
Unfortunately, not every neighborhood in Pasadena has access to those kinds of foods. Walsh pointed out that Northwest Pasadena in particular is what’s known as a food desert, or a heavily populated area with very few — if any — healthy, affordable food options. There’s a Vons supermarket anchored at Orange Grove Boulevard and North Fair Oaks Avenue, and a Super King Market at North Lake Avenue and Washington Boulevard, also on Northwest Pasadena. However, there is little else but liquor stores between those two locations, which are two miles apart.
“If you’re somewhere without transportation or you’re relying on public transportation or walking to buy your groceries, that’s a challenge,” said Walsh. “We call those areas food deserts. There seems to be one in a large swath between Lake and Lincoln [Avenue], and Orange Grove all the way up into Altadena. Individuals in those neighborhoods have less access to affordable, quality foods. Lots of corner stores, lots of liquor stores, but there’s not a lot of offerings of fresh produce and low-cost, high-quality foods.”
Organizations working to remedy this problem include Muir Ranch at John Muir High School. Here, a community of student farmers encourages urban agriculture and gets kids interested in healthy foods. Walsh said that work has to be done to reverse the marketing of junk food and fast food that is geared especially towards young minorities and lower-income people.
There are other community gardens as well, such as the one at Harambee Community Center on the corner of Howard Street and Navarro Avenue, and a new one at the Villa-Parke Community Center.
“We’re hoping to figure out systems to harvest and distribute foods from these community gardens but also from the urban forest that we have here in Pasadena, where a lot of people in their homes actually do produce a lot of good produce and fruits,” said Walsh.
In November, the City Council voted unanimously to change its backyard chickens ordinance, allowing more people to legally keep hens in their yard. Walsh said the move will allow people to produce their own fresh eggs — another step toward food justice.
There are others committed to transforming the food desert in Northwest as well, such as Marco and Michelle Barrantes of La Loma Development Company, a sustainable design and urban landscape architecture firm. Their headquarters are located at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Washington Boulevard, right in the middle of a large “desert.” Walsh praised their efforts to transform that neighborhood, which include plans for a food commissary on the property.
“With the food commissary we’ll help with the food desert problem in this area,” said Marco Barrantes. “There are a lot of people who walk by here from the different schools, there’s the business park and some city offices, so there’s a lot of people here and there’s no food. We want to solve that. By becoming more of a presence here we hope to change this derelict, no man’s zone that this corner was.”
Walsh said that food justice is related to class and race, not only in Pasadena, but in America in general.
“One of the things about food justice that you have to look at is some of the fast-food chains and soda companies have targeted certain neighborhoods,” he said. “They go into lower-income, more minority neighborhoods to sell their products because they’re inexpensive calories. Look at the concentration of fast food joints in certain neighborhoods. You cross Orange Grove on Fair Oaks, there’s a Church’s Chicken, Louisiana Fried Chicken and just past the Health Department there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken. There’s not much else. What could be done about that?”
To help combat this problem, the city offers such grant-funded programs as WIC, or Women, Infants, and Children, a supplemental food, nutrition education and breastfeeding support program in which registered dieticians work with some of the poorest families in town. They offer nutrition counseling, access to healthy foods and monthly vouchers for farmer’s markets to over 5,000 clients in the Pasadena area.
“Most importantly, we have to give a voice to the people up here (in Northwest Pasadena),” said Walsh. “Especially our Latino and African-American populations. They have to be empowered to speak. There’s less input coming from here. First and foremost it’s their voice that needs to sound loud in this part of town.”