Author: Damian Mendieta
Child advocacy health organization First 5 L.A. awarded the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) a $500,000 grant to continue its efforts to improve the nutrition of local, low-income preschool children, according to the Occidental website. With the grant, UEPI will work toward improving the access low-income families have to affordable healthy foods and focus on battling the rise in childhood obesity among low-income children. Of the 13 grant recipients, Occidental was the only college chosen.
UEPI will utilize the finds to promote school gardens and nutritious snack access through healthier food vending carts. Yelena Zeltser, UEPI staff member and Farm-to-School project manager, said healthier vendors are a key component of the program.
“Right now there are lots of vendors already, and they usually don’t sell healthy foods,” she said. “We would like them to minimize on ice cream, chips and sodas and focus more on fresh fruits and vegetables or other kinds of healthy snacks.”
Leading the promotion of healthy vendors is UEPI Policy Director and Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) Professor Mark Vallianatos. Vallianatos said the UEPI will work with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council in an effort to legalize street vending.
“We are working with partners in the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s street food task force to develop a model ordinance to legalize sidewalk vending and also promote and incentivize healthy mobile vending,” Vallianatos said. “We hope that more vendors can sell fruits and vegetables, either whole or cut as snacks. We also hope that vendors of meals can use more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and less fat, salt and sugar.”
In an article on the Occidental website, UEPI director UEP Professor Robert Gottlieb said the grant will also allow Occidental to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic that is rampant in impoverished neighborhoods.
“Childhood obesity is at an epidemic level and even more so among low-income children and children of color, including those under five years of age,” Gottlieb said. “Many overweight young children will remain obese throughout adulthood, posing an increased risk for weight-related health conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.”
The First 5 grant will also focus on increasing redemptions of Women, Infants, Children (WIC) food vouches at farmers markets. The WIC program serves low-in
come pregnant mothers and their children by providing vouchers for food products. Zeltser identified the farmers markets of East and South Los Angeles as UEPI’s areas of focus.
“We’re going to work at farmers markets to increase the acceptance of WIC vouchers at these farmers markets,” Zeltser said. “The idea is to improve access to healthy food for preschool age kids, to create environments where they and their parents can access healthy foods in easier ways.”
The First 5 L.A. program is the latest in a series of associated UEPI food justice projects. Earlier this year UEPI promoted its ongoing Farm-to-WIC program in an effort to increase the accessibility between WIC participants and healthy products. The nutritional campaign highlighted a program that brought fresh, local-grown fruits to WIC participants. For two years, UEPI has fostered a relationship between local farmers, low-income families and three WIC-only store chains. These three chains, Mother’s Nutritional Center, Fiesta Plaza Nutritional Products and Prime Time Nutrition, only sell products that can be purchased with WIC food vouchers.
In an article on the Occidental website, Farm-to-WIC program manager Zeltser said low-income urban communities suffer from a lack of places that sell fresh, healthy groceries. Zeltser said WIC-only stores could provide access to healthier products usually found at large-scale market chains. As of May 2011 WIC participants have been provided with 125 tons of produce, and $150,000 has been invested in the local farm economy, according to Occidental’s website.
UEPI is also a national leader in promoting the Farm-to-School program. Under this program, students in K-12 classrooms connect with local farms for the purpose of serving healthier cafeteria meals, increasing nutritional awareness and stimulating local agriculture. According to the Farm-to-School website, the main goals of the program revolve around raising environmental and nutritional awareness in the classroom and minimizing the presence of processed foods in school menus. The program also looked to reduce the distance between the agricultural sector and consumers.
Zeltser asserted that the recent grant will help to tie together all of their food justice programs.
“I think this is a way for us to promote and continue to tie together different kinds of programs that we have,” Zeltser said. “Now we are able to unify them together to focus on creating a healthy environment. It’s a way for us to continue our work and increase access for lower income folks to fresh, healthy foods.”
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