Survey Criticizes South L.A. Restaurants

March 30, 2005

Contact: Elaine Lapriore (213) 740-7895

Restaurants in Los Angeles’ poor African American neighborhoods offer fewer healthy foods than restaurants in wealthier, primarily white Westside neighborhoods, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

"The greatest contrast was in the number of healthy preparation options: for example, the inability to have a baked potato rather than French fries," said lead author LaVonna Lewis, an assistant professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

A key factor: 73 percent of the restaurants in the African American neighborhoods are "limited service" or fast-food places, compared to 42 percent in the wealthier neighborhoods.

But the study, viewable at, looks at more than just the types of restaurants, examining cooking methods and whether healthy substitutes are obvious options.

"This helps us understand whether restaurants encourage diners to make healthy choices," said David Sloane of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, a co-author of the study. "Clearly, those in South Los Angeles are less encouraging."

The study was part of a community-based research project developed by the nonprofit Community Health Councils, Inc., in collaboration with USC and UCLA faculty. In 2003, the same group evaluated grocery stores in these areas, with similar findings.

The researchers assessed 348 restaurants in South Los Angeles, Inglewood and North Long Beach, whose populations average 35 percent African American with a median household income of $35,144. They compared these to 311 eateries in West Los Angeles neighborhoods with an 8 percent African American population and a median household income of $47,697.

Researchers looked for healthy menu items, such as brown rice, fresh fruit and vegetables without butter, and the availability of healthy preparation techniques, including steaming, grilling and broiling.

Nearly 40 percent of the "white" restaurants offered five or more healthy preparations, compared to 27 percent of restaurants in the African American neighborhoods.

Also assessed was the restaurant environment, including cleanliness, customer service and safety/security. Fewer than five percent of the black-area restaurants earned a rating of "excellent" in these areas.

The study also reported the visible promotion of unhealthy food options in the target community. A third of the restaurants in the African American neighborhoods used promotional advertising on site, but only 9 percent of the total promoted healthy menu items. Even fewer labeled the healthy items (6.5 percent) or provided nutrition information (3 percent).

Community-based research was a significant element of the study. Neighborhood volunteers were trained to survey equal numbers of fast-food restaurants (where food is already prepared), fast casual restaurants (self seating of patrons, food prepared after placing orders); and sit-down restaurants (host/wait staff seating, staff takes and submits order, bill is paid after dining).

"In some communities, surveyors could not complete the number of fast casual and sit-down restaurants requested because these restaurants were not available," Lewis said. "The overabundance of fast-food restaurants and the low scores related to the physical environment of the restaurants – cleanliness, safety – while expected, are distressing."

The community-based research approach means a greater opportunity for significant community change, Lewis said. "We hope that the findings will be used by residents to begin to argue for healthier options in current restaurants, and to bring in new restaurants that offer healthier choices."

Funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, the research was conducted as a part of African Americans Building a Legacy of Health/REACH 2010 Project.

The project’s goal, Sloane said, is to bring economic parity to South L.A., Inglewood and North Long Beach and, ultimately, to end health disparities among African Americans, who suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular disease and diabetes.