In many ways, the coronavirus has served as a huge magnifying glass on our society, amplifying issues many of us knew were lurking near the surface but could often ignore during the course of our busy, pre-Covid-19 lives.
We knew many of our fellow Angelenos worked on the margins of the previously healthy economy, but that reality didn’t hit home until we saw reports that less than half of adults in Los Angeles County had a job post pandemic. We all probably had at least heard that minorities had worse health outcomes than white Americans, but perhaps that didn’t really register until statistics about the shockingly high death rates of black and Latinos from Covid-19 became reality.
And many of us were aware that resources aren’t spread equitably throughout Los Angeles, but it didn’t sink in until we began to see photos of impossibly long lines at food banks throughout the city and country.
Now we must decide whether we’ll harness that deepening awareness to help our neighbors in need. If we choose wisely, we’ll cultivate community-wide solutions not just for today but for the years to come.
We can start by thinking about food. The entrenched disparity in resources, particularly grocery stores, is stark. West L.A. counts twice as many grocery stores as South L.A., which is home to many of L.A. County’s 1.7 million food-insecure residents, according to a 2015 study.
Before the pandemic, this disparity was already literally killing residents. With less access to affordable and healthy food, residents of South L.A. have a life expectancy a dozen years shorter than their counterparts in West L.A. and are at far greater risk for obesity, diabetes and hypertension – all illnesses that seem to lead to a higher mortality rate for Covid-19 victims, incidentally.
But in the midst of a pandemic, residents living in food deserts are at even greater risk. Staples like rice, beans and eggs at their local stores are often scarce. Better-stocked, larger chain stores can often require a long trip on public transportation, something many residents want to avoid.
This often means that residents are having to pay more for food or go to extraordinary lengths to get groceries. Some of their stories:
Luckily, there have been many efforts to help the affected families. During the first week of April, the city of Los Angeles’ Angeleno Fund provided grocery vouchers to more than 3,000 families. We have worked with One Family LA, a campaign that has raised $1.75 million and has helped 2,600 families so far.
But these efforts will not solve the fundamental food security issues in L.A. To make a long-lasting change, the people of South L.A. need immediate reinforcements and creative thinking from L.A. County and its philanthropic partners.
Specifically, we need these entities to develop a $5 million fund that would provide emergency grocery vouchers to low-income families. A designated relief fund at the county level would build on the Angeleno Fund, which provided more than 3,000 families with grocery vouchers in its first week alone.
As importantly, the county should create a series of incentives to bring stores that offer healthy, high-quality, and affordable food to South and East L.A. Similar programs in places like the county of El Paso, which launched a plan in 2019 to help stores that sell healthy and affordable food either expand or locate in high-needs areas by offering $1 million in low-interest loans and grants.
If the coronavirus is truly a magnifying glass for our society, we cannot afford to continue to look away. We have to act on the ugly truths that it is showing us. And we cannot afford to wait.
Larry Fondation is the executive director of United Parents and Students. Michael Lawson is the president and CEO of the Urban League.