About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chinatown: Food as Medicine

I just got back from my first visit to Chinatown in Los Angeles.

In LA, unlike San Francisco or New York, Chinatown seems to get lost in the list of interesting ethnic neighborhoods, trumped by Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Little Ethiopia and any of the colorful Hispanic boroughs. Nonetheless, I found this little area east of Downtown a very interesting experience in food culture.

My first observation was that grocery stores were very different. Today, most large American grocery stores have several elements: they sell food, household goods, plenty of toiletries and over the counter drugs, and might have one of those "Seasonal" aisles in the middle with themed items depending on the time of year. Some have full service pharmacies, but in most cases the filling of prescriptions and the buying of Tylenol is left to the big pharmacy chains.

Not so in the Chinese grocery stores I saw today. These were relatively small, neighborhood establishments without a huge amount of floor space to sell their products. Yet, again and again I noticed that each grocery store had an entire section (and team of staff) devoted to healing herbs and teas. The pharmacy was in the grocery store. Every time.

This is probably because Traditional Chinese Medicine puts substantial emphasis on the relationship between diet and health. I am no Chinese Medicine expert, but I do know that experts in this area view food as a vital tool in the quest to restore balance and harmony to organ systems and thus cure illness.

The thought that a diet which is out of balance, unhealthy, or generally taxing to the body might be the root cause of a lot of human ailments does make a lot of sense. It is logical to wed food and medicine, as these Chinatown grocery stores seem to do. But, when Super Stop & Shop puts food and medicine together it is a white or metal pharmacy counter stuck as far away from the produce section as possible, dispensing transparent orange bottles with neat white labels. A lot of these transparent orange bottles contain pills to counteract or cure the sicknesses that result eating too much of the "food" items that take up the rest of the store.

When Chinese super markets put food and medicine together it seems to be much more organic. There are herbs in clear jars right next to the teas, and bulk bins of medicinal roots next to bulk bins of rice. The distinction between food and medicine is blurred. The whole thing seems more fluid. Food and medicine and mixed together because they are in harmony with one another.

I also noticed that the proportion of processed and packed foods was very small. Instead of dominating the entire center of the store, processed foods were in one tiny section at the end of a row. Most of the items sold in the Chinatown grocer were raw food items.

Further down the street I found another type of food shop: the candy store. This was really incredible. Way to the back of the shop there was a small section of items that I recognized as "Candy" - chocolates, highly processed candy bars, a few American name brands. The rest of the shop was filled with huge glass drums of dried fruits or sea creatures. You could get dried spicy crabs, shaved dried octopus that looked kind of like shaved coconut, dried lychee, pickled mangoes... any type of natural sweet snack you could imagine. You could taste everything: every single one of these drums had a cup inside with bit sized pieces and toothpicks. (Take that, Whole Foods.) There were no packages with name brands or advertisements. No nutrition labels. No ingredients labels because the name on the jar - "Pickled Mango" - said it all. The place was really bustling. I couldn't get over how different the selection was from the candy aisle at Walgreens.

Quite a culture shock. Right here in my home town.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, so jealous!! We don't have a Chinatown in Baltimore at all. The best I can do is take the Chinatown bus up to New York. I love the little dried anchovies in my salads (it takes some getting used to eating food that has eyes, though)