Why you should care
This sustainable, equitable idea could grow nationwide.
It was a clear, cool day in the Watts neighborhood of southern Los Angeles last summer when local residents saw thousands of pounds of produce dropped off, available for free to anyone in need. No identification required; no proof of food insecurity necessary. Just take, eat, enjoy.
Free farmers markets have become a regular event in the area. They’re jointly organized by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) and Food Forward, a Los Angeles-based organization that collects leftover produce across the region and delivers it to those most in need. Between this Watts market and two additional local pop-ups, Food Forward provides more than 356,000 pounds of free produce every week directly to people in need.
This is just part of a new food model sweeping Los Angeles, creating nutritional surplus in one of the most populous regions in the country. It is bringing together farmers, distributors, retailers, chefs, consumers, for- and nonprofit organizations, academia and the city itself — to address issues such as poverty, the environment, unemployment, waste management and health. The region needs help – according to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” report, 1.5 million people in Los Angeles County don’t have funds for sufficient food, making it home to the largest population of food-insecure people in the U.S. Now, it’s getting assistance.
This has gone on longer than a fad. It is one of our passions.
Stephanie Landregan, UCLA Extension’s horticulture and gardening certificate program
Local companies are collecting fruit that would otherwise go to waste and turning it into products. Restaurants are focusing on cutting down waste, and food and beverage businesses are taking produce donated by groups like Food Forward. UCLA Extension’s horticulture and gardening certificate program, which offers classes ranging from urban food production to container gardening, has seen enrollment double this past year. Businesses like LA Urban Farms are helping to build small vertical gardens for top restaurants and businesses. They even put one together at the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The federal Department of Agriculture is incentivizing the purchase of healthy food by people on public food subsidies. And Los Angeles County — where 1 in 7 jobs depends on the local food system — is offering tax benefits to property owners who allow individuals to cultivate agriculture in their empty lots, targeting urban pockets with low access to healthy food.
“We do tend to hop on a lot of the fads before anyone else has,” says Stephanie Landregan, program director of UCLA Extension’s horticulture and gardening certificate program. “But I think this has gone on longer than a fad. It is one of our passions.”
Starting in 2009, Food Forward had collected 2 million pounds of produce when Laura Jellum, the organization’s current outreach and communications director, joined four years ago. Today, the organization is about to collect its 50 millionth pound of produce through recovery and donation. And it’s not just local community organizations – local businesses too are partnering with Food Forward. Last summer, Salt & Straw created three innovative ice cream flavors based on produce recovered by Food Forward. The local Smog City brewery used 800 pounds of kumquats collected by Food Forward to brew its new Kumquat Saison.
“I’ve just been blown away by the innovation I see happening across Los Angeles,” says Jellum. “Whether it’s advancing policy to make it more affordable for people to get fresh food or doing these produce pop-ups, I think people are showing a lot of dedication to this cause.”
Local companies are now seeing an opportunity for enterprise. Like Pulp Pantry, which collects hundreds of pounds of pulp from juiceries around the region — waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill — and turns it into its own food products. Or Everytable, a franchise of health food restaurants that employs a waste-conscious business model while offering a more equitable approach with different prices based on the local economies of its seven different locations.
The public sector has joined in too. The Más Fresco program, financed largely by the Department of Agriculture, is incentivizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables by people earning public food subsidies in Southern California. And the Los Angeles County tax benefits program for those growing food in empty lots, started in 2015, is specifically focused on areas like South and East LA, so-called food deserts where locals don’t have access to proper grocery stores.
The Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), which helped introduce this countywide urban farming incentive, has also worked to institute programs that encourage corner-store owners in underserved communities to sell healthy foods. It has set up an oversight initiative with the Los Angeles Unified School District to ensure a healthy and sustainable approach to the $150 million a year it spends annually on meals.
Make no mistake, the challenge facing LA remains significant. “Los Angeles sits at the heart of one of the largest food-producing regions in the world. But we also have the highest population of food-insecure people in the country,” says Breanna Hawkins, policy director at the LAFPC. “That paradox is just reflective of how broken our food system is.”
But the model the city is now adopting promises to do what has never been attempted before. The element of community in this new local model was on full display when historic fires ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December. With the largest wildfire in modern California history destroying hundreds of thousands of acres, L.A. Kitchen needed to provide 30,000 meals to area residents. Founded by nonprofit pioneer Robert Egger and with celebrity chef José Andrés serving as chair emeritus of its board, the organization — among other programs — offers culinary training to individuals who were either incarcerated, homeless or in foster care.
“I think there is an attraction to working with these resources and just finding a way to connect the dots,” says Ken Weekes, general manager at L.A. Kitchen. “Food is that communal piece that everybody can kind of rally around. Our slogan is ‘neither food nor people should go to waste.’” Just another player in a growing Los Angeles network committed to community and sustainability, alongside tasty eats.