American Morning

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March 29th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

Commentary: Transforming 'food deserts'

Editor’s Note: Elissa Barrett is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. She joined us on Monday's American Morning as the Jewish holiday of Passover was set to begin, to discuss her organization’s work on the issue of ‘food deserts’ in Los Angeles.

By Elissa Barrett, Progressive Jewish Alliance

Tonight, Jewish families all over the world will gather around their Seder tables to celebrate the holiday of Passover. In our nation’s capital, President Obama will be hosting a Seder in the White House, recounting – as millions of others will be doing – the story of the liberation of Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

On Passover we trace our path from oppression to redemption, from suffering to opportunity. As we recall our wandering through the desert on the way to freedom, our minds turn to those who are suffering today, to those still wandering the desert. The Progressive Jewish Alliance seeks solutions to repair injustices in our cities here and now, calling attention to the reality that millions of Americans live – unnecessarily – in "food deserts."

Food deserts are areas dominated by fast food restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores with little or no access to fresh and healthy food. In a food desert, buying potato chips is easy, but buying a potato is hard.

Food deserts, unfortunately, exist at the intersection of race, class and geography. While 31% of white Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, only 8% of black Americans do. The human costs of living in a food desert are high: inadequate nutrition leads to preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Ending the plague of food deserts can produce healthy bodies, healthy economies and healthy communities. When supermarkets open in food deserts, they bring good jobs and living wages, providing an engine for economic growth in under-served areas. Recent store expansions in New York and Philadelphia have shown that supermarkets in food deserts can be both profitable and dramatically increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among residents.

In Los Angeles, PJA supports a citywide policy to influence the expansion of the grocery industry into food deserts. We can bring healthy food and good jobs to those who need it most, and the grocery industry can do well by doing good.

At my Passover Seder tonight, I’ll be sharing this story with family and friends. We invite you to do the same at your table. On our website you can download our Food Desert Seder Plate for a unique addition to your Passover experience. Learn more and join the movement to transform food deserts at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elissa Barrett.

Filed under: Opinion
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Belinda Gomez

    East LA is served by mom and pop grocery stores, carcenerias (butcher shops) and HIspanic merchants like Super A. Yuppies on the West Side think any place without a Whole Foods is a "food desert" and ignore the very real, lively economy that's present on Soto, on Lincoln, etc.

    Also, zoning and permitting in LA is very difficult–largely to protect Westside neighborhoods. This is class warfare, more than caring,

    March 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  2. good ol boy

    We already pay taxes so the govt. can give a large % of nonworkers food stamps, so and they still cant find the will power to eat healthy food! I got to go to work now,have a nice day.

    March 30, 2010 at 8:11 am |
  3. Craig

    Fat people want their grease like pots heads want there weed! Put a pig in a lot and he will make mud, feed him slop and guess what, he`s going to eat like it`s no tomorrow!

    March 30, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  4. Debra Webber

    Hats off to the passing of the American Health Care System. If we don't have our health, we have nothing. American's need to be educated and motivated to accept their responsibility towards their health. We have to educate America on preventive medicine and how important it is to living a quality life. We have to incorporate preventive medicine with western medicine to get optimum health care. We have to get back to cooking and stress the importance of physical activities. When you watch CNN it is sad to see the fat in America. We have to get fired up and ready to go to help President Obama take America to new heights in a positive America for all American's. We will see the turnaround in America because people will feel better and look better and the esteem of individuals will soar to new heights. Change in America has been a long time coming.

    March 30, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  5. Thomas

    What a load of self serving garbage. Now "ALL Americans should have access to......etc" A new right.

    Please keep your nose out of family business. As of yet, the government has not taken over every decision people can make. From birth/abortion to death/abortion, soon we will be about to look to the fed. government for permission.

    March 29, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  6. India DeClair

    Thank you Elissa Barrett for your work, concern, and passion.

    America is a greater nation than what we currently display. The "food desert" situation and inequity . . . MUST be corrected.

    Thank you CNN and AM FIX for telling this story.

    I can only hope more media attention to this obvious, and critical imbalance in the lives of millions of Americans can bring the much needed correction. ALL Americans should have access to fresh vegetables, fruits and other healthy dietary ingredients that others take for granted.

    Once again, race and economic disrespect I believe plays a large role here. This is serious . . . and necessary work.

    I applaud Ms. Barrett, and CNN for telling the world about this very serious issue.

    India DeClair

    March 29, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  7. Tom

    Any efforts to subsidize food stores will also require lots of behavioral training. Many families in food deserts are second generation in these areas so they have no parental training how to plan and prepare meals. Rarely is there a stay at home parent with time to prepare a meal at a decent dinnertime as well, or if there is, there is a chance they have emotional or addiction problems that limit their planning abilities.

    Although nutrionalists will have a fit, the most likely way to make this work will be to concentrate on breakfast cereals, some easy to consume fresh fruits, and lots of prepared and microwave dinners. High in salt, yes, but still better than fast food.

    Things that keep for at least a week in the cupboard or freezer and can be prepared in 15 minutes or less are what will succeed.
    Thankfully the market of frozen bag meals has started taking off in the past 2 years so now is a great time to start this initiative.

    March 29, 2010 at 8:57 am |