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South L.A.: From Food Desert to Food Oasis

April 13, 2009

Fresh and Easy (11)

Turning South Los Angeles into an oasis that can provide healthier food to South L.A. communities was the subject of a two-day conference hosted by the California Endowment April 8-9.

The conference, titled “Food Desert to Food Oasis,” brought together a number of activists looking for feasible ways to help South L.A. residents, who are underserved by an inadequate number of markets.  Speakers answered questions and took audience suggestions about how to solve the lack of healthy market food available in the area and simultaneously spark local business development.  Event organizers hoped to show how difficult and complex the issue can be to address.

“We need you to engage with your ideas and your concerns,” said Mary Lee, senior associate of event sponsor PolicyLink, as the second day of the conference began on Friday.  “Before we’re through with this exercise, we may not have all the answers—we couldn’t possibly have all the answers.”

Even so, Lee stressed that all the obstacles preventing the construction of more markets offering healthy food in South L.A., such as various zoning regulations and business owners unwilling to move, were surmountable.

“The reality is we have…developers who are ready and able and equipped to do this work and bring these stores into our community,” Lee said.

On the second day of the conference, two underutilized lots were presented as case studies of places in South L.A. that could use a grocery store.  The first location, at 4401-4455 Slauson Ave., is a 3.2-acre site with 11 parcels.  The second site, at 1626-1654 Florence Ave., is just 0.77 acres and contains 10 parcels.

The diversity of many South L.A. neighborhoods could get in the way of a community presenting a clear list of requests to a developer considering the construction of a large market on a vacant lot.

“Most frequently, the community voice is one that is uneven,” said speaker Jackie Dupont Walker, president of Ward Economic Development Corporation.

Ralphs, plural

Learning what a community wants in a soon-to-be-developed market is in the developer’s best interest, she added.

“The community voice must stay at the table.  In fact, it’s in the best interests of all parties because those are the actual people who are going to … make the venture profitable.”

Before a supermarket developer becomes serious about potentially building at a specific site, census data will often be pulled to determine how many people could be served.  This presents a problem for South Los Angeles, said speaker Carolyn Hull of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles.

“Often times the census data undercounts our community.” Hull said.  “So it’s very important that we actually get present data … that can accurately represent the buying power of our community.”

Instead of attracting more big chain stores like the Ralphs supermarket at Vermont Avenue and Adams Boulevard, one audience member questioned the focus on attracting larger stores to fill the approximately $60 million of unmet need for healthy food within a two-mile radius of one of the two project sites.

“That could be 60 little corner stores each selling $1 million of fresh, healthy, affordable food or 30 stores with $2 million each in revenue,” he said.

Again underscoring the difficulty of the issue, moderator Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build Inc., pointed out that larger stores can offer healthy food for South Los Angeles residents but also start an economic “development ripple effect” in the area.

Fresh & Easy

Conversely, adding a smaller market like a Fresh & Easy – currently with no South L.A. locations – could provide healthier foods in a shorter time frame than it would take to plan and build a market or full-service supermarket.

“I want to know how we get the timetable sped up a little bit in this area because we have got all the resources in the room to do it,” said another audience member, frustrated at the slow or nonexistent construction progress of South L.A. projects like the Marlton Square shopping center in Crenshaw.

Introducing farmer’s markets was another short-term solution suggested by audience member Erin Banks, the office manager of Los Angeles-based Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

“You can rotate [the farmer’s market location during the week] until you can figure out the bigger picture,” Banks said.

Those wishing to share their opinion on the issue will have another chance May 7 at a Food Resource Development Coalition meeting at 10 a.m. at 3731 Stocker Street (Suite 201) also confronting the lack of grocery stores in South L.A.

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