Food Deserts: Veronica Flores of Community Health Councils On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options
Civic leaders really need to begin thinking about how to create local economies that are non-extractive and that will change people’s lives. In terms of policy, there are progressive policies that we really need to be advocating for like changing racist zoning laws, lending requirements for local communities so that they can open food businesses, offer incentives for business development, etc.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Veronica Flores.
As a seasoned senior-level executive with 30 years of experience driving organizational sustainability in support of nonprofits and social enterprises, Veronica Flores’ professional legacy has been focused on public health and policy, community development, social innovation and business planning; all within the context of social change.
Ms. Flores serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Community Health Councils, Inc, an organization with a mission to collectively build equitable systems. Flores joined the organization in 2015 during a critical period of restructuring and turn-around. Motivated to see the capacity and legacy of the organization succeed and driven by a desire to see outcomes and change in South LA, Flores spearheaded four key initiatives: the South LA Food-Tech Hub, the Coalition on Economic Resilience, The Social Change Institute, and established a pipeline of Social Enterprises. The intent was and continues to be the development of a holistic ecosystem approach to increasing food access, quality healthcare, systems change, and community wealth building opportunities resulting in colossal, multi-million financial growth for CHC during her tenure.
Due to her deep desire to cause radical change as an activist committed to racial equity and championing issues related to social justice, poverty, and sustainability, Veronica Flores has always identified herself as a disruptor. Prior to joining CHC, Flores was the President of Triple Notion, a consultant group providing strategic leadership and capacity building to non-profits, public health agencies, and start-ups seeking to scale multi-cultural social enterprises and initiatives, while increasing financial sustainability. Flores is also a former Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Southern California — Sol Price School of Public Policy. Until recently, she served as Co-Chair for the Los Angeles County Community Prevention & Population Health Task Force; currently she is a Task force member of Facilitating the Development of a ‘Just Transition’ to Clean Energy; Community Research Ambassador to City of Hope Medical Center; member of Charles Drew University President’s Advisory Council; Advisory Board Member to the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS); Leadership Board Member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council; Advisory Member to Insure the Uninsured Project (ITUP); and member of South Los Angeles SLATE-Z Economic Development Workgroup.
Flores has received numerous awards, designed, authored and co-authored several journal publications in addition to facilitating awareness and training workshops to hundreds of people, and provided consultant services to diverse service providers, community-based organizations, government agencies and educational institutions in the United States. She received her M.A. in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University and her B.A. in Psychology from California State University Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path was really defined by my political leaning. Growing up, my father was an activist and I watched him as he was involved with all sorts of political stuff. I am from Chile and was there during the military coup. We saw folks being plucked from their homes to never be seen again; torture, persecutions, murder, human rights implications happening all around us, even with people we knew. After a year in that, we came to the US as political refugees. As a young girl, I was removed from my home and left everything behind, except for the clothes that fit into our suitcases. That really shifted my entire world. I felt a major displacement that I did not expect and that was just the beginning for me. I had a whole different appreciation for what it was like to be displaced, especially coming to a country where we were seen as piranhas. It made me want to become someone who could create change, open opportunities, and make life easier for people who may be experiencing something similar to what I did. That was really the catalyst, and I became involved as an activist as a teenager working with immigrants and women’s rights.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I began my career as a financial planner, and at 23, I was one of the youngest brokers at my firm. I was investing people’s money in areas that were considered “evil” from the perspective of an activist, like oil, and I realized that being a broker wasn’t in alignment with the activist path I was on, no matter how much I loved financial markets. Back then, it felt unethical and challenging to who I was at my core, so I left. It made sense to me to then jump to the nonprofit sector, the most disruptive space I could think of, even though it was a huge drop in salary. I found my purpose.
After my first job working at the Alcoholism Center for Women, my world changed. I knew the nonprofit space was where I was supposed to be, as I was able to blend my personal and professional passions. Now, I am able to refer back to my first career, and use my knowledge in financial markets to play a huge role in the direction and the success of Community Health Councils (CHC). Sometimes I can’t even believe I even get paid for the work that I do. This is not to say that it is hard work but blending passion with purpose is the most amazing experience.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
The tipping point for me was when I began to work in really collective spaces, and discovered the power of “all” and the power of unity. It took a few years to get used to being in a space with diverse people and perspectives trying to achieve one goal, but I learned a lot from that. It was about achieving a consensus, bringing folks together who were most passionate about actual change and willing to engage in collective dialogue, and finding allies who also champion the cause. Now, I hardly make any decisions about the direction of CHC by myself. I depend on our management team to voice their truths. I manage my organization not from a pyramid, but rather from a flatter structure, because a pyramid management style does not work if you are trying to create systemic change. Learning to divide the power of decision making so that everyone is included can be very transformative.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I absolutely did not do it alone, and it’s really hard for me to identify only one person who helped me because so many people played a role. Finding mentors who nurtured my growth, who have more knowledge than me, and have the openness to share that knowledge with others, propelled me further. Many of my mentors have been in my life for a very long time. For example, Ruth Slaughter is someone I met during my second job in the nonprofit sector in the 80s and we are still in touch frequently. I also had some great professors and professional mentors who helped me refine my strengths along the way. In some instances folks offered to support me and in other cases I asked for mentorship. Never be afraid to ask. What’s the worst that can happen? Honestly, I truly found my mentors — many women, some men — when I discovered the strength of unity/collective action and the importance of staying connected to my circle of influence.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Flexibility has been a huge one for me. I have learned to not get stuck on perfection or “what is right” but rather, I am always asking myself what is the fundamental outcome I’m looking for or what is the process that will allow my purpose and my truth to surface. Life is not black and white but an interesting color of gray. Tying into flexibility, being in a permanent state of inquisitiveness to understand root causes and options; lastly, ensuring that I am showing up in a non-judgmental way around time, people, experiences, languages, labels, etc.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a few quotes that I always use, but one really stands out when thinking about what still drives me: “Learn from yesterday, live for today. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein. I think what makes it so important to me is that I’ve had a tendency to live in the future. I’ve had to really struggle to stay in the present and this quote is how I remind myself to consistently think about the past as lessons and learn from those experiences and mistakes.
That quote was also the catalyst for me to find meditation as a centering space and to not take anything for granted. When my father, who was my great friend, passed away unexpectedly, it changed my world. I realized then that I needed to pay attention to the present so I could limit the times I said to myself, I regret that. So now, if I know something or feel a certain way, I follow my gut and act on it; and if that includes telling a person how I feel, then there’s no time like the present. I’ve learned to not wait for tomorrow because no one knows what tomorrow holds. Most importantly, understanding what I appreciate in the present gives me hope for the future.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Food desert, which is also called food apartheid, refers to a geographical place where people are unable to gain access to nutritious foods. They are a major issue affecting millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. If it takes someone in a particular neighborhood 4–5 miles to access food outlets, that is considered a food desert. They either have no access or limited access to food, especially nutritious food, around their neighborhood. This term has gotten a lot more notoriety in the last few years, given their impact on the health and well-being of entire communities. In fact, around 2006/2007, when the term food desert was first coming out, there was a study done in Chicago which mapped the location of food outlets, according to the USDA. Then after walking into each of those “food outlets,” the researchers found that it included liquor stores, convenience stores, and gas stations as the food outlets. They found that no one in these neighborhoods had access to fresh produce or nutritious foods. The other critical issue about food deserts is that they are typically within communities of color. Hence, when we look at interventions to increase access, we must understand who lives in those neighborhoods and why food retailers refuse to open in those locations. Having access to healthy foods is a human right; therefore, it is inconceivable that in this rich country people and children are still living with hunger or malnutrition.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Yes, there is extensive data that demonstrates that living in a food desert may put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. When you have a lack of nutritional foods, a number of secondary aspects come into play. Most critical is the fact that we have seen an increase in the obesity and diabetes rates in children because they are not getting the right nutrients. Tragically, as these children become adults, they are at extremely high risk of becoming obese and developing early hypertension and full-blown high blood pressure, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In these neighborhoods, it’s easier to buy a pint of liquor, a hamburger, or a gun than a fresh apple. Lastly, not having access to a supermarket that offers fresh fruits and vegetables has had a profound impact on the nutrition, health, and well-being of families lacking cars or access to public transportation to get to well-stocked grocery stores.
In the short term, kids who are experiencing malnutrition face tertiary problems, such as negative impacts on intellectual preparedness, lack of concentration due to hunger, and low self-esteem, just to name a few.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Institutional racism. That’s really it. Food deserts have also been labeled, food apartheid and have root causes in food insecurity, racial segregation, proximity to supermarkets, access to a vehicle, and various other social factors. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), food deserts are “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” When the word access is delineated in this context, it needs to be understood through a variety of lenses that include income, location, race, and political will. Hence, these factors that allow food deserts to exist are connected to immense social and systemic issues. In either case, the problem can be traced to the 1960s as the economy began to change and suburban areas started to grow. This was the era of white flight, the mass migration of white families from urban areas to the suburbs. In most instances, the supermarkets followed middle-class white families, leaving a gap in resources for those folks they left behind.
This was also when redlining was a business strategy that ensured people of color had limited access or no access to home ownership. This meant that communities were specifically built for white people, and those communities were called “model communities.” It was also a time when freeways were built to separate white families from poor people of color; these divisions were drawn exactly along racial lines with no real urban planning to ensure those left on the “wrong side” of the freeway had the resources they needed to live with dignity.
Those physical boundaries were also fueled by this country’s racist financial policies. If a business such as a grocery store wanted to come into a community of color, but needed a loan, they usually wouldn’t get that loan, as banks felt that they could not demonstrate that they would get a return on their investment. Additionally, most economic development initiatives tend to focus on areas that are considered to have the highest growth potential instead of areas with the highest need. Therefore, many foundational businesses that should be part of any community were not built in communities of color and it is still this way. Unfortunately, financial institutions still think that because of the historical lack of investment, there are increased costs for opening up a business in areas such as food deserts.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
I believe that the only way to change anything is to be a disruptor to the system. CHC has operationalized what it means to be disruptive. There are two main aspects to that: ownership and wealth creation. We have stopped trying to convince grocery stores to come into our communities and rather, we are focusing on establishing local initiatives that will drive business ownership and create vehicles for growing and distributing our own food. That is really the work of CHC, and we are doing that in a couple of ways.
First, we looked at all the players in the food growing and distribution space, as well as existing resources and gaps in resources within certain zip codes. This helped us understand who are the most vulnerable within the food chain system. Mostly, these included local farmers, residents, and small businesses, including street vendors and nonprofits. Lastly, this information led us to the creation of a business strategy that aims to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for new business to grow and thrive as well as the proliferation of vehicles for family wealth building. To achieve this, we found that all our interventions have to be structured through an ecosystem model that revolves around a family and it is place-based. Working through an ecosystem strategy means building a system that offers multilayer support and opportunity. Evidence shows that these types of interventions have the highest chance of becoming sustainable.
Some examples of this work include growing our own food on a large scale through hydroponics. One of these is a hydroponic pod that is completely off the grid, which means it will capture moisture from the air and will use solar energy; can be located in any terrain, and can grow a significant amount of produce, weekly. This product was developed in partnership with Morphosis Architects who is currently completing its pilot phase. We expect to have these ready for distribution by early 2022.
Another project that will also be based on hydroponics is our South LA Food Tech Hub. This will be a 40,000 sq. ft. commercial building that will host hydroponic production to support local businesses, including street vendors, cold storage, a grocery store, incubator kitchens to promote food related businesses, tech innovation space, and mission aligned nonprofits. The Hub will create local jobs and entrepreneur opportunities that will build the local economy and increase food access. We must also remember that small farmers are a huge part of this ecosystem. Our plan is to hire local farmers to grow the seedlings we’ll need to support the hydroponic production. Overall, we are trying to build infrastructure in south LA that can be replicated in other places to create local wealth, ownership, build political power, and strengthen our food economy.
Lastly, we are working on local, state and national policy that can impact long term change.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Something that is really uplifting right now is the fact that our ecosystem model is being recognized as a key element in mitigating gentrification. It is being looked at as a key strategy and something people should really be thinking about and I am very proud of that. It feels incredibly rewarding that after all these years of doing this work, CHC is finally being recognized as a go to organization for innovation surrounding food access.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
COVID made food insecurity more visible to the average American and it exposed the damage to children and the indignity of hunger for entire communities. Food deserts have become a common term to describe low-income communities — most often communities of color.
To address the issue of food deserts as food apartheid, civic leaders need to focus on creating food sovereignty through community-driven solutions and systemic change. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they were created by racially discriminatory policies. Policy makers need to focus on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas, so that they can begin to tackle the necessary structural change to address these root causes. Building more grocery stores won’t necessarily make things better; these communities need stable jobs and a livable wage to change their access to healthier food. If a community is recognized as economically viable, then grocery stores would be coming into that neighborhood, people who would have access to jobs and therefore they would be able to buy that food.
Ultimately, creating a local economy needs to be a collective goal shared by policy makers, local governments, nonprofits, and the private sector. Civic leaders really need to begin thinking about how to create local economies that are non-extractive and that will change people’s lives. In terms of policy, there are progressive policies that we really need to be advocating for like changing racist zoning laws, lending requirements for local communities so that they can open food businesses, offer incentives for business development, etc.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
There are quite a few organizations that have been working in this space for a while so can’t name them all but certainly the LA Food Policy Council has been quite successful in promoting food policies that have been operationalized at the city and county level and continue to push for change. Seeds of Hope, SEE LA, Everytable, South Central Farmers, and many others who provide access to healthy foods through farmers markets, food distribution, waste management, nutrition education, and affordable meals have been key in supporting food desert communities.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Absolutely. The only way to truly change the current system is via policies that become law and begin to address some of the reasons that food deserts exist in the first place like zoning laws, redlining, wealth distribution, and more. Also laws that create more accessible transportation are hugely important. People in lower income areas who are working two jobs, or even just one job and have kids, but still can’t afford a car must rely on public transportation. Taking the bus to drop your kids off at school, then taking the bus to work, to come home, to the grocery store and then carrying those groceries for a larger family home. It’s almost impossible and really not sustainable. Certainly, not equitable. Mitigating issues affecting access, which should be considered ubiquitous in this country, should be so basic yet, that is the reason CHC and so many other organizations exist.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Given the successful and also painful history of social movements that have changed how people think, interact, and influence the landscape of opportunities for women and people of color, my work today is only focused on systems change. I want policy makers, nonprofits, government entities, and parts of the private sector to collectively engage in making this happen. Movements are about building solidarity and committing to collectively solving interconnected, systemic problems.
I want all of us to think of how our current movements are challenging the status quo by pressurizing existing systems to change, that include the voices of those impacted in the planning and development of disruptive alternatives to racist systems, promoting their adoption that can lead to systems-wide transformation.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Michelle Obama. I am always so inspired by her words and actions. During her time at the White House she was so committed to promoting the health and wellbeing of children that she was a great motivator for many of us engaged in this movement. Â She is also someone who thinks outside the box and can enjoy life on her own terms. I would love to have a conversation with her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
CHC Website: https://chc-inc.org
CHC Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/communityhealthcouncils/?hl=en
CHC Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CommunityHealthCouncils/
CHC Twitter: https://twitter.com/chcinc?lang=en
My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/floresveronica/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.