Photo of Kathy Leventhal
Food Insecurity in LA County

USC Dornsife Public Exchange

Innovative Solutions for Pressing Matters

What if your next meal wasn’t guaranteed? For many Angelenos, finding answers to this question has become more difficult and pressing. Fortunately, Public Exchange at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences might have a solution.  

Through innovative research on food insecurity — defined as a lack of access to enough food to live an active, healthy life — a team of USC researchers coordinated by Public Exchange is identifying solutions that can make a difference in the lives of Los Angeles residents who are struggling to access the nutrition they need. 

A first-of-its-kind program, Public Exchange connects teams of USC scholars and students with leaders in the public and private sectors to help solve complex and pressing issues. Founded in 2020 by USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller, Public Exchange is built upon a vision of bringing scholarship out of the “ivory tower” and into the public square. The practice provides expert research and project management services to government, industry and nonprofit partners working on social impact challenges. 

Now, as food insecurity continues to rise following the pandemic, Public Exchange has set its sights on helping its partners tackle this issue in Los Angeles County.  

The “hunger cliff’ 

COVID-19 has caused a crisis in economic, social and food systems across the globe, and many L.A. communities have yet to recover — particularly Latino, Black and low-income residents. 

In partnership with the Los Angeles County Food Equity Roundtable, and funded by a $2M grant from the National Science Foundation, Public Exchange is working with a team of USC and City University of New York experts to build a data portal that monitors food and nutrition access and insecurity throughout the county.  

The initiative takes a “whole-of-system” approach, expanding beyond access to grocery stores to consider larger structural drivers, like food policy and economic opportunity, that compound food insecurity.  

In the team’s related report on food access in L.A.’s eastside, one surveyed resident said, “I just wish we had more options here, but what we’ve been told is that those corporations will not invest in coming into communities of color and low socioeconomic [status] because they feel that we will not purchase expensive organic food.” 

Public Exchange’s research indicates that one in four households in L.A. County experienced food insecurity in 2022, and experts predict that conditions will only worsen. 

“After a dip in 2021, food insecurity clearly worsened last year,” said Kayla de la Haye, the project’s lead researcher and associate professor of population and public health sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC. Now, as inflation and food costs remain high and extended pandemic CalFresh benefits have come to an end, de la Haye is concerned about the looming “hunger cliff” — a term used to describe a sharp and abrupt decrease in food spending power.  

“[During the pandemic] that was my fear, that my children didn’t have enough,” said one resident surveyed. “I started skipping a meal to make sure they were fed. And it’s worse now. Because the bills went so [high]. And it’s kind of scary.” 

No plate left empty 

The recent Public Exchange study of four of L.A.’s eastside neighborhoods may shed some light on the path toward a more equitable and just food landscape in the county.  

In Boyle Heights, City Terrace, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights, where half of the census tracts are defined as “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — meaning they have limited access to affordable and healthy food — research data revealed a surprising discovery: The four neighborhoods have a diverse landscape of 269 retail outlets that sell groceries — a far cry from a desert. 

Further investigation found that the quality, affordability and walkability of these grocery stores posed the greatest obstacles to residents.  

“[It would help] having more supermarkets or fruit and vegetable stores, maybe closer to the community or offering transportation,” said one Angeleno.  

Another resident said, “[Food assistance] programs make it easy for me because I can buy fresh food for my children: fruit, greens, vegetables, meat.” 

For the USC research team, the answer is clear: Any recommendations for tackling the looming hunger cliff have to be systemic and community-based. That means developing and leveraging programs that support small grocers, expanding resources like CalFresh that increase residents’ buying power for healthy groceries, targeting accessibility strategies to those with the greatest need and investing in nutrition education programs at the community level.  

Donors help connect Public Exchange with USC’s neighboring communities 

Public Exchange’s innovative approach to collaborative problem-solving has drawn the support of donors like Kathy Leventhal, whose many roles at USC include Trustee, volunteer and parent.  

A former media executive and founding publisher of Allure magazine, Leventhal joined the USC Board of Trustees in 2016 following years of dedicated service and leadership at the university. When Public Exchange put out a call for support, Leventhal was among the first to respond.  

“Unlike a standard think tank solution to a problem, Public Exchange has unique access to experts and can customize research to empower all stakeholders,” said Leventhal. “The originality and effectiveness of each Public Exchange project is transformative.” 

For Leventhal, supporting Public Exchange is just one of many ways she gives back to USC. “It is a joy and an honor to participate in so many areas at USC — as a Trustee, as the Chair of the Public Affairs Committee and as the Chair of the USC Dornsife Board of Councilors,” she said. “To engage with so many thought leaders across a wide swath of subject areas is a tremendous privilege.” 

Leventhal feels that the work being done by Public Exchange underscores USC’s deep connection and commitment to its surrounding communities. “In the case of the food insecurity project, stakeholders have evidence-based results to help them understand the food and nutritional needs of those affected.” 

She added, “By tapping into the tremendous expertise of USC’s faculty and researchers, [and] by tailoring each project so that solutions respond directly to community-identified needs, outcomes are highly impactful.”  

Taking action to ensure that all communities and their residents have access to healthy foods is a key pillar of nutrition security and food justice. By outlining data-driven strategies for bringing the benefits of a healthy diet within reach, Public Exchange is helping to make this goal a reality.  

“Being able to support USC and the work being done by Public Exchange means being part of a future with promise and possibilities,” said Leventhal. “And nowhere does that future look brighter than USC.” 



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