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Economy / Jobs

The celebrity chef trying to fix Los Angeles’ food desert problem

Wilmington and 103rd Street, Watts: if there were a list of intersections in Los Angeles where you’re least likely to spot a celebrity, this would definitely make the top ten. Residents here don’t have to worry about being swamped by celebrity tour buses or rabid TMZ reporters, as do their counterparts in the Hollywood Hills. They have other issues to worry about – like the dire lack of healthy food options in the neighbourhood.

But this year, the once god-forsaken patch of Los Angeles has unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight, thanks to the efforts of a native son: Roy Choi. Choi is one of those rare Angelenos who, after making a name for himself, instead of making a break for the richer parts of town, decided to tackle a pressing issue facing one of the less celebrity-friendly parts of town.

Choi is a different breed of LA celeb. You’re not likely to see him in the acting credits of a major motion picture any time soon (though he has racked up a few noteworthy credits behind the camera, including a co-producer credit on the Jon Favreau film Chef).

But, if you live in LA, you’ve probably seen his ubiquitous Kogi food truck rumbling around the city’s streets, popping up at important events around town. Choi cemented his celebrity status with his very west coast signature dish: the Korean taco.

And though he may not have the ubiquity of George Clooney, his respect locally has helped him build up a cult following. And in January of this year, he channelled that following into his latest pursuit: Locol, a new restaurant, located at this very troubled corner of Watts. On its opening day, the restaurant succeeded in putting an end to the area’s celebrity drought, pulling in such big names as Choi’s collaborator Favreau, Lena Dunham, and LA’s mayor Eric Garcetti.

But while Choi does not shy away from the celebrity set, his goal with Locol is to make sure its reach extends beyond the red carpet and into the rest of the neighbourhood, in the hope of helping bring an end to its status as a “food desert”.

Watts going on

Watts wasn’t always a food desert. Located eight miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, the area initially developed as a centre for manufacturing, capitalising on the multiple railroads that passed through the area. The area became a favourite destination for African Americans moving to Los Angeles, many escaping the segregated south, and drawn to plentiful employment with the railroads and local industries. The neighbourhood was never glamorous; but residents could at least count on local food suppliers to be able to provide them with a decent meal.

But this would change. By the early 1960s, railroad companies were beginning to downsize their operations in Watts. Other industries soon followed suit, and economic opportunities dried up. The area was the site of a devastating riot in 1965, and in the decades that followed, the notorious Bloods and Cripps street gangs formed to meet skyrocketing demand for illegal drugs nearby.

Watts as mapped by the Los Angeles Times. The X, added by CityMetric, is the corner where Locol is located. Image: Los Angeles Times/Wikimedia Commons.

The area quickly gained a reputation as a no go area. Aspiring drug dealers engaged in seemingly endless turf wars, and police seemed more concerned with dispensing needless violence than effectively maintaining order and strengthening the community. This led to an environment where running a small business, to provide food or other necessary services to the community, became both unprofitable and unsafe.

Thus, Watts found itself in a situation faced by many underprivileged communities across the US: it had become a food desert.

The concept of the food desert originated in England in the 1990s: in many areas, the exodus to the suburbs had made retaining local markets economically unfeasible. This factor was at play in the US as well, but it was compounded by racial segregation and the more car-centric layout of America’s cities.

In food deserts, residents either have no easy access to food at all, or can only easily and affordably access food that is considered to be unhealthy. On many of the street corners in Watts, for instance, the only places to get a bite to eat are either fast food restaurants or liquor stores where cashiers sit behind thick panes of bullet proof glass.


Thinking Locol

And it was exactly this food desert status in Watts that Choi took aim at with his new outfit, Locol. “What we decided was to go right next to McDonald’s, go right next to Burger King, right next to Taco Bell,” he said at the restaurant’s opening. “Let’s feed the neighborhood, let’s do what we possibly can as chefs,” he said, drawing cheers from the enthusiastic crowd.

Choi’s goal is to tackle two different problems in Watts: the lack of healthy food, and the lack of food that is affordable. The items on sale are all under $6, with most under $4.

Locol is not alone. New outlets in Watts are seeking to address the area’s chronic lack of healthy food options, led not by celebrity chefs but local residents. Since 2007, the Watts heathy Farmers Market, an event held every week run by the group SEE-LA, has brought fresh produce to the area while offering residents the option to pay for produce via EBT. Another project, Mudtown Farms, seeks to provide another source of fresh produce for Watts residents via a new urban farm.

Not all the efforts to cure Watts’s nutritional troubles have been successful. At about the same time Choi’s Locol opened, an effort to build a sustainable grocery store at 95th Street and Broadway, only a couple miles from Locol, was officially abandoned. In that case, city officials had gone to great lengths to secure construction of a new market on an abandoned lot, providing tax incentives and leveraging federal funds. Nevertheless, the market’s owner balked at community input and pulled out of the deal.

And there’s some chance Locol may one day fall victim to its own success. Though Watts is still far from being gentrified, it’s not impossible to imagine that over the coming decades, if efforts to combat Watts’s chronic lack of food prove successful, that current residents may eventually find themselves priced out of the area. Currently gentrifying areas such as Echo Park and Highland Park seemed a far cry from gentrification material only a few decades ago.

Time will tell if efforts by Choi and others to end the food deserts in Watts cam make a difference – but for now, locals seem receptive. Their neighborhood may still be a world away from the celebrity-saturated Westside, but at least there’s something good to eat.
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