Big Food meets Skid Row
Big Food meets Skid Row

Here's Where People Are Actually Going Hungry in L.A. County

About one out of six L.A. County households has experienced food insecurity — reduction in the
quality, variety or desirability of diet — in the span of a year, according to a new analysis from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. One in 15 households has experienced "very low food security" — or reduced food intake — according to the county. The analysis includes a breakdown, below, of areas of the county experiencing the most hunger and food insecurity.

The analysis, Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County, looked at data from 2002 to 2015, collected as part of an ongoing regional health survey. Food insecurity has been on a steady march upward in the county since 2002, with nearly a third of lower-income households in the county (30.4 percent) experiencing the problem, according to the analysis. The steady increase (from 18.9 percent in 2002) has surprised some experts who expected improvement in the years after the Great Recession (officially 2007 to 2009).

"We would hope that so many years past the Great Recession we'd see some improvement," says Michael Flood, CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. "The economy has improved, employment has improved, but we're not seeing it in this report."

The big driver of this food insecurity, Flood and others say, is the high cost of housing in Los Angeles. The economy has improved, but since 2002 the local market has become renter-majority. A report by the California Housing Partnership Corporation in June found that L.A. County rents have increased by nearly one-third (32 percent) since 2000. During the same time, local incomes in today's dollars actually dipped about 3 percent. One result is a 23 percent increase in people on the streets in the county this year, according to the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority.

"Families have to make very difficult choices about whether to pay for food or the rent," says Cynthia Harding, interim director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health. "These are hard and awful decisions."

The analysis is broken down by age, race or ethnicity, and regions of the county. Lower-income county residents ages 30 to 49 were the most likely to experience food insecurity (at a rate of 38.4 percent). More than 67 percent of lower-income Latino households experienced food insecurity. The result is greater health problems, such as diabetes, for Latinos who purchase higher-calorie, lower-nutrient foods that are also lower-priced.

Lower-income whites (14.7 percent) were next on the food insecurity list, followed by African-Americans (10.9 percent) and Asian-Americans (6.6 percent). That last number could tie into the regional figures: The Asian-influenced San Gabriel Valley experienced the least amount of food insecurity. Only 6.1 percent of lower-income households had experienced "very low food security" in the span of a year, according to the county.

The area with the largest percentage of lower-income households (34.4 percent) experiencing food insecurity is the Antelope Valley, followed by the Eastside and southern county (both 32.4 percent), and then by the central, "metro" area (32 percent), according to the analysis. The metro area had the most lower-income folks (16.9 percent) facing very low food security, followed by the Antelope Valley (16.3 percent) and southern county communities (12.9 percent), county researchers found.

The analysis defined lower-income households as those taking in 300 percent of the federal poverty line. An example of the folks discussed here is a household of four that sees a total of $71,000 a year or less in income, Harding said.

That kind of money sounds reasonable (it's more than the L.A. County household median take of $56,196), but in a town where $109,543 in annual income is required just to get into an "average" ($2,556 per month) two-bedroom apartment, it's just not enough. You can see how housing costs can eat into the food budget of, according to the analysis, 561,000 of L.A. County's 3,263,069 households. A lot of these folks are part of the working poor. "At the heart of the problem is poverty itself," Harding says. "We won't address food insecurity without addressing living wages and poverty."

"We're seeing people seeking food assistance who are trying to hang on to their housing," adds Flood of the food bank. "Many are working."

While high housing costs can be remedied with higher incomes that are often out-of-reach for average Angelenos, solving the county's hunger problem might be a little bit simpler. There is food available for folks, often for free.

The county health department is pushing its Champions for Change-Healthy Communities Initiative, which "partners with schools, faith-based institutions, hospitals, grocery stores and worksites in low-income areas to create environments where healthier food options are more available," according to a statement from the health department.

Folks can be too proud to seek help when it comes to getting fresh healthy food. Experts want people to know that the taxpayer-subsidized CalFresh program, for example, no longer involves the scarlet letter that was food stamps. Recipients receive a special debit card that can be used in most grocery stores.

They also want people to know that there are far more folks who are qualified for CalFresh than receive it. Experts believe that many Angelenos — such as folks living in those wealthy-sounding $71,000-per-year households — don't realize that they could be eligible for discreet food subsidies and programs.

"There's a myth that I'm working — I'm not eligible for food stamps or CalFresh," Flood of the food bank says. "CalFresh has reduced the stigma. We need to break through some of the myths out there."

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