Food deserts remain an issue in Orange County’s poorest neighborhoods

Residents of neighborhoods without healthy grocery stores are often left to turn to more convenient and unhealthy options. Bryce Jorgensen/Lariat

Many impoverished neighborhoods in North Orange County are without healthy grocery options within walking or reasonable driving distance

Orange County is often headlined as a playground for the rich with its glamorous beachfront mansions and extravagant shopping malls. Another type of living in the county, however, often goes ignored. 

Cities like Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove are home to a considerable population of people facing poverty. Over time, healthy grocery chains began to open locations all over affluent areas, mostly in South County. Still, the same establishments have not extended to many of the densely populated, disadvantaged neighborhoods north from there.

Of their 20 locations in the county, Trader Joe’s has left a visible void of locations where most of the county’s impoverished population lives. There is one location in the Santa Ana city limits, but it is located in the more wealthy South Coast Metro neighborhood, a far cry from Artesia Pilar and Floral Park. 

Whole Foods Market has recently made their presence known with eight locations, but primarily in South County. Only two locations exist elsewhere: one in Brea and one in Bella Terra, an upscale shopping center in Huntington Beach.

“They just do not build the stores themselves,” said Allison Camelot, a sociology professor at Saddleback College. “Grocery stores do not build in those areas. They may think that in some areas, they’re more impoverished. They might think that there’s the higher crime rates or something to that effect, so they don’t build them.”

Second Harvest Food Bank reported that over 450,000 Orange County residents, about 14% of the population, are subjected to food insecurity. Groups affected include children, seniors, and many working-class adults affected by COVID-19 related economic impacts.

A research report by Clemson University in 2016 found that a 1% increase in food security in an area leads to about a 12% increase in violent crime, assuming all other crime influences remained constant. 

“There’s the emotional and mental aspect of that insecurity and how that causes other mental health issues and anxiety issues,” Camelot said. “Having that can lead to these other mental health issues.”

Having little access to healthy food options leaves residents with no choice but to consume more fast food and processed goods like cereal, chips and microwave meals.

“They’re more likely to have issues of obesity, which a lot of times people don’t think about,” Camelot said. “They’re thinking, ‘Well, they don’t have a lot of food, so why is obesity an issue?’ but it’s the processed foods, and that the food that they do have access to is not good quality food.”

Children who miss meals are likely to fall behind in school relative to their classmates who come from food-secure homes. Children’s HealthWatch reported that students dealing with food insecurity at home fall behind in the learning process by the time they reach kindergarten.

“If you’re hungry, it’s hard to think and be able to do well in school,” Camelot said. “If you’re worried about food and your parents being able to afford food, it’s very hard for them to be able to concentrate on school when they’re worrying about other things.”

Due to the lack of healthy options in North Orange County and other parts of the country, nonprofit organizations have stepped in to alleviate the issue, such as CAP OC and Second Harvest Food Bank. Saddleback Church also has its own food bank service and held a drive-thru event in Mission Viejo in February. 

Saddleback College operates a food bank for students in need. The organization can be accessed via the college’s Canvas site under the Student Support section and accepts monetary donations.

While nonprofits may provide some assistance, the problem is much larger and has become an issue with the government’s agricultural involvement.

“No one should face food insecurity, and no one should go hungry,” Camelot said. “We have plenty of food that is just wasted. I think that more should be done in terms of the government to make sure that people are getting food and that even these grocery stores get some type of incentive to build in these areas that don’t have them.”