Image: Selma Lozoya
Reed Saxon  /  AP
Selma Lozoya checks food stocks at Los Compoadres Market, which has a good variety of healthful food available, in South Los Angeles. In the poorest parts of the city, a grocery store or a sit-down restaurant can be hard to come by, a reality local officials fault for the higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems that plague the area disproportionately.
updated 12/18/2008 3:58:59 PM ET 2008-12-18T20:58:59

Selma Lozoya is working to bring better food to one of the poorest communities in America, South Los Angeles, where neon lights illuminate a greasy fast-food vista and obesity and diabetes are rampant.

While grocery stores and healthy restaurants are scarce, corner stores are stocked with beer, cigarettes, fried snacks and fatty sweets.

"I can't drive yet so I'm not gonna do anything extraordinary like jump on my bike and ride it for two or three miles and ride it back with tons of stuff on it, oh no," said Lozoya.

The 17-year-old's work with her high school classmates to urge so-called bodegas to stock healthier options is part of a larger campaign across the United States by nutritionists and community activists to eradicate so-called food deserts in poor communities.

"Deserts are naturally occurring things," said Joanne Kim, chief operating officer of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles. "We call this food apartheid because people have chosen to locate elsewhere even though there is substantial purchasing power here."

There are only six supermarkets in South Los Angeles, serving a population of about 688,000. By comparison, 19 supermarkets serve West Los Angeles' population of about 395,000.

Check obesity rates in your stateRetailers blame theft in urban supermarkets, high employment turnover and lack of space for choosing to locate their stores elsewhere.

Some cities are trying to get more supermarkets into urban areas. The state of Pennsylvania invested $30 million five years ago and got 61 supermarkets opened in rural and urban areas.

Chicago and New Orleans are considering similar programs, but legislation to bring the same assistance to California cities died in the Legislature in 2006 due to budget constraints.

Echo of history
The food disparity in South Los Angeles is an echo of the area's history, marked by decades of segregation and racial strife, dating back before the deadly 1965 Watts riots.

In the last decade, South Los Angeles has shifted from a mostly black to a mostly Hispanic community, with Latinos making up about two-thirds of the population, according to 2006 Census figures.

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Today, fast food is king in South Los Angeles. Nearly three-quarters of restaurants offer food on the go, compared to 42 percent in pricier neighboring West Los Angeles.

Slideshow: Perspectives on obesity The city's Community Redevelopment Agency estimates the area could support 14 new grocery stores and 74 more restaurants. But few businesses are biting on incentives that include hiring tax credits, 35 percent electricity discounts for a year and low interest loans.

Like many residents of Lozoya's community, where 28 percent of households live below the federal poverty line, she relies on the small corner grocery a few blocks from her home for chicken, fruit and vegetables.

Until recently, Los Compadres Market and Restaurant looked like most others. But Lozoya and her classmates gave it a healthy makeover through a grant from The California Endowment, a private health foundation that aims to create healthy communities.

Chips and candy were removed from the front aisle of the store; a large cooler in the back was stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables; fruits were carefully laid out to avoid bruising; milk and cheese chilled alongside beer.

"These problems are really killing our communities," said Marion Standish, a program director for the endowment. "They're really disabling young people all over the state and limiting their potential in very serious ways, and limiting all of our potential as a result."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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