An Oasis in the South L.A. Food Desert

South L.A. is losing its supermarkets. Here's how one community-driven produce stand is helping to fill the gap.

By Julianne Hing Oct 11, 2013

Under the protective shade of a white tent Ruthie Cordova lays out the organic produce she is selling for the week: basil, chives, heirloom tomatoes, purple beans, collard greens, kale, amaranth, guava, red peppers and fuji apples. All of it is fresh and locally grown. Dubbed Fresh Fridays, the stand would fit in at any of Los Angeles’ tony farmers markets. But Cordova isn’t selling at a farmers market. She is set up in the parking lot of a liquor store on 39th and Western, a notoriously troubled corner in South L.A. 

The produce stand, run by Community Services Unlimited, is South L.A.’s latest response to its dearth of healthy food options. In the sprawling low-income, predominantly black and Latino neighborhood it’s far easier to find a bag of chips than a crisp apple. Roughly 75 percent of the restaurants in the area sell fast food. South L.A. is the very definition of a food desert.

"This is organic, local food serving South L.A., grown on South L.A.’s own farms," says Joanne Kim, chief operating officer of the organizing group Community Coalition, which helped bring Fresh Fridays to the neighborhood. The stand is also two blocks away from a shopping center that until June housed a Ralphs supermarket. Ralphs had been there for more than two decades and was the only grocery store in the immediate area. The closest market is now more than two and a half miles away.

When Ralphs’ parent company Kroger announced the location would close this summer, the community took the news hard. It was the second South L.A. Ralphs shutdown in the last year, and its closure drew protests from neighbors who for years had complained about the store’s condition but were angry about being abandoned.

The parking lot produce stand, which is in its third month of operation, wasn’t organized as a direct response to Ralphs closing its doors. But the recent grocery store shuffle and the creative, if small-scale response are emblematic of the neighborhood’s long struggle for access to healthy food. South L.A. residents are dependent on fresh food purveyors who aren’t particularly interested in doing business with them. 

"We don’t have any grocery stores close by," says Maria Plummer, a South L.A. resident who lives a few doors away from the liquor store and stops by the Fresh Fridays stand regularly. The produce stand is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, she says. But it’s no substitute for an actual supermarket."I like to cook fish, turkey wings, greens, string beans and rice, but there’s no store."

Plummer shopped regularly at the Ralphs when it was open but was often disappointed by their offerings. "I’d go there to get vegetables and I could not find one fresh vegetable," she recalls.  

Plummer’s not alone. For years, South L.A. shoppers complained that Ralphs sold old food and rancid meat, says the Community Coalition’s Kim. The kinds of supermarket amenities that people in richer neighborhoods take for granted–fresh meat, organic produce, a hot food counter–were nonexistent or only inconsistently offered, shoppers say. The real burn about being abandoned was that Ralphs shoppers had so few alternatives, says Plummer and several former Ralphs shoppers.

Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel denies the allegations of rotten meat and expired food. "We have the highest standards in food safety," Doyel says. "We would never want to sell bad product or product that is not fresh."

Supermarkets are themselves a struggling breed. Across the nation, they now fight for survival against online grocers and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, which have aggressively expanded their grocery offerings in recent years. The grocery store shuffle happening nationwide has hit poor communities of color particularly hard. The formerly British-owned grocery chain Fresh and Easy, which opened a location in South L.A. to great fanfare, was sold off last month after six unprofitable years of business in the U.S. In the wake of the announcement the company has been shutting down dozens of its 150 stores throughout the U.S.

In 2012 Ralphs shut down 15 of its Southern California locations. Two were in South L.A. "Closing stores is the last thing we want to do," spokesperson Doyel says. "But both of those stores were losing a little over $1 million every year for quite some time."

It’s clear that supermarkets are not going to deliver the food revolution to poor communities of color who are shut out of the fresh food market.

But a person’s promixity to a grocery store is the very measure by which the USDA gauges people’s access to healthy food. It’s still an illustrative indicator. In South L.A., each grocery store serves roughly 6,000 people whereas in whiter and wealthier West L.A., there’s a grocery store for every 3,763 people, according to Community Health Councils, Inc. 

There’s a seeming disconnect–with roughly 1 million people living in South L.A., all of whom need to eat, it seems an obvious place for fresh food development. But since the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, the community has had serious difficulty bringing grocery stores and broader economic development to the area. In the rebuilding process which followed the uprising, grocery store chains like Vons, Smart & Final and the Kroger-owned Ralphs and Food 4 Less vowed to open as many as 32 new stores in South L.A. But between 1992 and 2008, the area saw a net gain of just five new grocery stores, according to Community Health Councils, Inc. (PDF). At the heart of people’s food access struggles is poverty, say advocates. 

"Stores don’t come into communities because they think communities are too poor," says Aiha Nguyen, director of the Grocery and Retail Project at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. "But if you don’t support good jobs that keep people out of poverty, such as union jobs, … then you’re not really solving the root cause of the problem. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle."

In the short-term though, the community is working on its own creative social enterprise with the produce stand. The produce is grown by youth with Community Services Unlimited’s gardening program. The money from the stand goes to support the organization’s community and youth programs. Still, as welcome a sight as the produce stand is, "right now a lot of these activities are not dramatically changing how accessible food is in the community," Kim says. They’re just too small-scale at the moment.

And it’s not always an easy sell. On Friday outside Century Liquor and Market, Cordova lured passersby with free samples of figs and guava. She’d let people pinch the herbs to catch their scent and chatted with folks as they reminisced about the guava jams of their childhoods. But last Friday, more people stopped for a sample and a chat, and would walk away without buying anything. One man circled the table and eventually bought a small 50-cent apple and left. But then he came back and bought another for his wife. "She’d kill me if I didn’t bring one for her too," he explained.

"That’s the point, to be at places where there isn’t a lot of fresh produce available," says Cordova. "These fruits and vegetables are not just for certain people. We should all have affordable, fresh, organic food."