Will New LA Government Agency Reduce ‘Food Inequality’?

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With more than 100,000 employees and 38 separate departments, the county of Los Angeles is the largest employer in Southern California. And it’s about to grow even bigger. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved on Nov. 7 a plan to create the Office of Food Equity.

This new bureau “will expand on the efforts of the Food Equity Roundtable,” a public-private partnership established in 2021 “to ensure just and equitable access to nutritious food in L.A. County.”

“By creating the first-ever L.A. County Office of Food Equity, we can build on the work we already started with our partners, modernize our food system, and work toward a future where everyone in L.A. County can get the healthy food they need,” says Supervisor Janice Hahn, who authored the motion with Supervisor Lindsey Horvath as co-sponsor.

According to the Daily News, the office “aims to create more farmer’s markets, food co-ops and urban farms – especially in areas known as fresh food deserts,” which sounds appealing but fails to withstand light scrutiny.

First, no intervention is needed to “create more farmer’s markets, food co-ops and urban farms.” Those will grow where the open market determines there is a sufficient demand. Otherwise, they will fail and require perpetual government subsidies to stay open.

Second, “food deserts” are yet another misleading government designation, which suggests they are neighborhoods where the poor can afford only foods that are harmful to their health. It turns out that “a healthy food basket costs 8% less than the unhealthy food basket,” says Cato Institute senior fellow Johan Norberg in his Dead Wrong video series.

There is also a distance factor. The U.S. Department of Agriculture “defines food deserts as both low-income areas and ones in which more than a third of the population (at the census tract level) lives over a mile from a grocery store/supermarket (10 miles for rural areas).”

But, according to John Stossel, “when government officials first labeled ‘food deserts,’ they deviously ignored small stores, only counting stores with more than $2 million in sales. It’s true that one ‘food desert’ Obama visited didn’t have a supermarket. But it had multiple smaller businesses selling fruits and vegetables. Government officials just didn’t count them.”

Given the many references to hunger by politicians and the media (and not just in California), it would be reasonable to believe that Los Angeles is starvation central. But “food insecurity” is not the same as going hungry.

According to Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, food insecurity “just means that they had to rely on cheaper foods, store-brand alternatives … or reduce variety.”

Talking “food insecurity” surely brings to mind images of gaunt, calorie deprived Angelenos. What else would we think? But that would be a mistake. In an interview with Stossel, Sheffield said that “food insecure” adults are more likely to be obese. Citing National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Norberg says that even “when low-income households get the same food availability of the rich, it reduced nutritional inequality by 9%.” Most “just kept eating whatever they ate before.”

If Las Vegas were taking bets on the effectiveness of this new department, the smart money would be on its failure. Another shrewd wager would be to bet that despite its shortcomings, the department will grow and become just another lump in the county’s bureaucratic blob, a permanent sump that will never achieve its mission and will always need more money from taxpayers.

“Government programs want to keep themselves going,” Sheffield told Stossel.

And there’s hardly a more effective way to do that than to swear the program is keeping people healthy.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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