A block away from the Coliseum tucked in the corner of a fenced-off Manual Arts High School there’s a garden. Under such harsh urban conditions, a mini-ecosystem would seem unlikely, but this is where the sustainability group Chicas Verdes is headquartered.
The organization gives away 50,000 pounds of produce in its weekly produce drive for the local community. Angelenos line up as early as five in the morning to pick up boxes filled with food grown in and around Los Angeles. Each box is able to feed an entire family for up to a week.
Chicas Verdes is located in what the USDA calls a food desert. South Central has below-average access to grocery stores or farmer’s markets with foods that are considered nutritionally beneficial. Latinx households make up over two-thirds of all food-insecure households in Los Angeles county and make up the majority of residents within the South Central neighborhood, according to the L.A.County Department of Health.
The USC Dornsife Public Exchange research group published a new report last Wednesday detailing the heightened state of food insecurity in Los Angeles as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than one in four Los Angeles County households experienced food insecurity during the first months of the pandemic, with an overwhelming majority being low income, Latinx households according to the study.
“What we’re seeing is that there probably is some real challenges that are getting worse for people living in food deserts especially with concerns about getting the virus and how you get your food in a safe way and if you have a car to go and do that,” Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine and lead researcher Kayla de la Haye said.
Farmer’s market closures and limited store hours affect those who rely on public transportation to access food supply chains. Without easy access to a car, L.A.'s limited bus and transit infrastructure are a large inconvenience for those with limited time frames to purchase groceries.
According to de la Haye, the majority of those interviewed for the research project live in East and South L.A., and a significant portion represents single-parent households. Food insecurity can have significant impacts on adolescents' nutrition, which can lead to both mental and physical health problems.
“It affects their confidence because they don’t feel good, they’re mentally foggy,” Applebaum said. “They’re not as active as they could be because they’re just not putting the right things into their body. There’s a lack of focus in class.”
The drive began after Manual Arts moved online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chicas Verdes saw how students were struggling to meet nutritional needs without access to school lunches and began a partnership with the American Heart Association in April to raise funds for the drive and transportation of fresh produce. The organization just completed its 21st week of food handouts.
“We were really nervous because a huge part of Chicas Verdes is community,” Manual Arts junior Manuel Lopez said. “We wanted people to be together, learn things together, so COVID-19 was just a direct counter to that, which was really awkward. But Ms. Applebaum saw this as a direct opportunity for us to really get our name out there.”
Chicas Verdes was founded in 2017 and is directed by former Manual Arts teacher Bari Applebaum. The organization’s leadership is made up entirely by Manual Arts students who not only run the produce drives but also work on entrepreneurial sustainability projects, run the organization’s social media and website, design sustainable merchandise and experiment with plant-based products such as soaps and medicinal treatments.
“We look at where there are disparities or where there’s a lack of some resource and we figure out how we can create a food system or a system that we can safely forward so that people aren’t having these needs in the future,” Applebaum said.
As the pandemic progresses, both Applebaum and de la Haye expect Angelenos to continue to need food support. Chicas Verdes hosts its food drives every Wednesday and is exploring the possibility of expanding operations to other schools.
“Those types of community-based organizations have really stepped up to fill gaps and quick needs that people have,” de la Haye said. “It really is like a system of supports that are really responding in a pretty amazing way, given everything that’s going on.”