Thursday, February 02, 2012

First Lady Michelle Obama In Southern California: Let's Move To Build Supermarkets

"Every family in our country should have access to healthy food," First Lady says during visit spotlighting public-private economic partnerships...
Inglewood, CA: First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday morning held a Let's Move! campaign event in the Los Angeles area for the first time since launching her national childhood obesity initiative two years ago, visiting the construction site of a Northgate González Market that will open in April. A family-owned company, Northgate has 36 outlets across Southern California, all located in primarily Hispanic communities. (Above: Mayor Butts of Inglewood and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa listen to Mrs. Obama speak at the market)

"The story of Northgate and the new Northgate Gonzales Market that is being built here is the story that we want to tell in cities and towns across America," Mrs. Obama said. "It’s a story about bringing fresh, healthy, affordable food into communities that need it most. It’s a story about creating jobs, about revitalizing neighborhoods."

Mrs. Obama's two-day California trip has been all about encouraging healthy eating--which included getting Jay Leno to eat vegetables on national TV. The Northgate visit was Mrs. Obama's second appearance at a Hispanic supermarket in a week; she was at the National Supermarket in Tampa on Jan. 26, joined by the president of Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the US. Inglewood's population is 46% Hispanic, Mayor James T. Butts, who joined Mrs. Obama, told Obama Foodorama.

He was seated on stage as Mrs. Obama spoke, as were Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, and Oscar Gonzalez, one of the Northgate owners. The event spotlighted the efforts of the California FreshWorks Fund (CFWF), a partnership loan fund led by The California Endowment which has received federal funding. CFWF is helping  Northgate build three new markets, including the one Mrs. Obama visited. 

Mrs. Obama unveiled the CFWF last summer during an event at the White House in which she announced that grocery corporations, including Walmart, have made commitments to build or transform 1,500 markets in areas identified by the US Department of Agriculture as food deserts. That announcement, like the Northgate appearance, also focused on job creation and community revitalization.

Northgate is devoted to family values, Mrs. Obama said, because the company, joined by The California Endowment, will also promote health and nutrition education for customers.

"That’s more than just owning a store. That’s being a responsible member of the community. That’s like being family," Mrs. Obama said. "And that’s what you would hope for the institutions that come into our community."

The new market is still a shell, the unfinished walls and windows covered with temporary particle board, the dirty yellow insulation for the air conditioning system visible on the ceiling. But the First Lady spoke from a podium set amidst a fantasy tableaux of healthy food, backdropped by what seemed to be hundreds of pounds of fruit and vegetables, jars of oils, bags of whole grains, bottles of juice and milk. A vintage pick-up truck was parked on one side of the stage, laden with crates of food. Green mylar balloons and black screening drapes were also strategically placed in an effort to make the site more presentable.

"They dressed it up really nicely, it’s pretty impressive," Mrs. Obama said. "This will be home to a brand new, fully stocked grocery store. And thousands -- thousands of families will be able to buy fresh fruit right in their own community."

They'll also be able to buy lovely pastries and every other kind of unhealthy food that is typically sold in supermarkets; a buffet table at the event offered sweet baked goods, Pan Dulce Mexicano and Tartaletas, alongside bowls of fruit salad, Agua Fresco and Spinach Water. The Administration's drive to encourage the building of supermarkets is predicated on giving families improved food choices, rather than mandating what these will be.

Mrs. Obama was clad in a bright orange jacket over a yellow blouse, and dark blue slacks, and somehow avoided being covered in the thick white construction dust that was everywhere, including on the thrilled audience of about 75, all from the neighborhood, and many local leaders in child health projects, according to the White House.

Getting healthy food into "Underserved Communities" rather than "Food Deserts"...
Last September, CFWF received a $3 million grant from the Treasury Department, in the FY 2011 round of funding for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a tri-agency project created by the Obama Administration to help eradicate food deserts. Just 12 projects across the US received grants. For FY 2012, Congress gave $32 million to the HFFI, far less than the Administration's request of $330 million. CFWF now has $264 million in funding, according to The California Endwoment's CEO Ross. 

Still, Mrs. Obama did not use the words "food desert" during her remarks, though eradicating all US food deserts by 2017 is a key pillar of her campaign. The White House instead said the event was designed "to highlight progress being made to increase access to healthy, affordable food in underserved communities." Inglewood is not listed on USDA's Food Desert Locator webtool, and in fact has three major grocery markets and a CostCo located within its nine square miles, according to Mayor Butts.

So exactly what is the definition of an "underserved community?" And how does it differ from a "food desert," which actually has multiple definitions according to USDA? Mrs. Obama's aides did not answer a query about this. Jeff Okey, a spokesman for The California Endowment, told Obama Foodorama that the foundation also doesn't have a hard definition for "underserved community." There's no specific population, racial/ethnic, income, or geographic specifications attached to the idea of "underserved communities," Okey said.

"We use the term for poor and low income communities, which tend to be minority, but not 100 percent," Okey said. "Foodwise we mean a community that only has access to liquor deli and fast food places." But he added that "I don't think that that would be an actual definition."

Mrs. Obama attended the first-ever Let's Move! "food desert summit" hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last fall in Chicago, but also did not use the word "food desert" during her remarks hailing the importance of building markets in food deserts.

Definitions notwithstanding, the First Lady tap-danced around the idea of food justice during her Northgate appearance. She's called it a "right" for parents to expect that their children will receive healthier foods in the National School Lunch Program, and on Wednesday, she called access to healthy foods--with the building of local groceries--a "privilege" that should be available to all Americans.

"There are too many communities that don’t have this kind of privilege," Mrs. Obama said. "And I’m here today because I believe that every family in our country should have access to healthy food, because we can’t solve this problem [childhood obesity] if they don’t."

"When we bring healthy food into our communities, we’re not just making this generation of kids healthier, but we’re working on the next and the next and the next."

After lavishing praise on all, Mrs. Obama worked the very dusty rope line for ten minutes after her remarks, taking photos and shaking hands before heading off to a campaign fundraiser luncheon in Hancock Park with Mayor Villaraigosa, which included some of the stars of the film "The Help." She also taped The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

CFWF's partners include NCB Capital Impact, NCB, Unified Grocers, California Grocers Association, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, Calvert Foundation, Social Compact, Emerging Markets, PolicyLink, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, U.S. Bank, Community Health Councils, Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, Met Life, Citibank, Opportunity Finance Network, and Charles Schwab Bank.

Mayor Butts loves the First Lady...
In addition to the 46% Hispanic population in Inglewood, there's also a 46% African American population, Mayor Butts told Obama Foodorama. He was thrilled that the First Lady had shown up in his town, though he admitted that Inglewood has not joined Let's Move! Cities and Towns, a subcomponent of Mrs. Obama's campaign which now has more than 600 communities signed on.

"We've joined as of today, right now," Butts, 58, said, laughing, and adding that the First Lady's visit "put Inglewood on the map."

"There are no words to describe what her presence, her charisma meant to the city of Inglewood. Her presence made a big statement to our children and our adults about the value of a healthy eating and healthy lifestyle. To have her validate the efforts we've made in our city is just huge."

Located at the very busy intersection of 108th street and Prairie Avenue, the market is across the street from an AM PM gas station/mini market and an auto repair shop, with modest houses located along the side streets. A sign hanging on the outside reads "Coming Soon-Muy Pronto."

Asked if an Hispanic-centric market will be patronized by Inglewood's African American population, Butts was certain that it would be.

"Healthy food knows know cultural boundaries," he said, and laughed again.

It can't be overlooked that Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! efforts are a boon for President Obama's re-election campaign, since she's paying so much attention to the crucial Hispanic voting bloc. The Obama campaign on Wednesday launched "African Americans for Obama," which includes a new video from the President courting voters, and a special web portal for black voters to engage with the campaign.

While in Los Angeles, the First Lady also attended a high-dollar DNC reception in Beverly Hills. Mrs. Obama's Director of Communications, Kristina Shchake, joined her at Northgate. The Los Angeles PR firm Schake founded and then left to take up her White House post, GriffinSchake, handled the PR for the event. (Above: The buffet table, staffed by Northgate employees)

*The transcript of the First Lady's remarks.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama