Inner-city L.A. hungers for good grocery stores

A coalition of community, faith-based and environmental groups is trying to draw quality supermarkets to neighborhoods in East and South Central L.A., where residents have little access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

East L.A. resident Olga Perez has to take two buses to a store about eight miles away to get fresh fruits and vegetables, or decent cuts of meat, for her family.

"The only thing I can get at my corner store are spoiled or expired," explains Ms. Perez, a dental assistant and single mother who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with two daughters and a granddaughter.

The round trip costs her $5 and limits what she can carry home. "I can only get so much milk and when I get home the eggs are cracked and the bread is smashed," she says.

And because she works until 6:30 p.m. most nights, Perez doesn't often have the time to make the trip and get home in time to cook for her family. Her solution: "Open a can of ravioli or make hot dogs," but that sometimes keeps her daughter and granddaughter up at night, complaining of insomnia and stomach aches.

It's a situation the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a city-wide coalition of 25 community, faith-based and environmental organizations, is trying to change. They formed a Blue Ribbon Commission in early 2007 to address the chronic absence of quality grocery stores in several L.A. neighborhoods including East L.A. and South Central – and are now trying to draw such stores to these underserved areas.

It's a real problem, says Cheryl Resnik, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which abuts Perez's neighborhood.

Many of her students come to class either malnourished or jittery from sugar in sodas and fast food, she says.

"We were teaching them how to eat better, but then we realized they don't have access to the kind of food they need," says Ms. Resnik, who runs a free clinic. "The only thing they have are mom-and-pop liquor stores with candy bars and cupcakes."

The dearth of decent grocery stores plagues urban areas across the US including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Houston – contributing to childhood obesity, say health experts, which affects a higher proportion of Hispanic and Black youth.

"Children in these low-income 'food desert' communities don't have enough healthy options and it's hurting them in a very dramatic way," says Resnik. She says her free clinic had to buy a 500 lb.-capacity scale, when they found three teenagers under 15 exceeded the 250 lb. limit of the regular scale.

In L.A., the "food desert" problem was exacerbated by the Rodney King riots of 1992, when huge areas of the city burned, says Pastor William Campbell of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church. Many businesses including grocery stores did not return to the troubled neighborhoods.

He cites a California Budget Project study that puts the number of grocery stores at 3.6 per 100,000 residents in East and South L.A. compared with 12.4 per 100,000 people in West Los Angeles, which includes the neighborhoods of Brentwood, Westwood, Pacific Palisades, and Malibu.

East L.A. had one of the worst ratios of full service supermarkets to residents of any community in the county, found a 2002 study by Occidental College in L.A.

Top grocery chains say the high cost and low availability of land keeps them away from these neighborhoods. Full service supermarkets are required to have 50,000 sq. ft. buildings and four acres of parking. The long permit process in California is also a deterrent.

"It's hard to develop a plan for a large grocery because the building costs and estimates can change significantly over the course of the permit process," says Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Association, which represents 6,000 stores in California. The Association says it is working with city officials to overcome legal barriers to new grocery stores.

The grocery industry has divided the city into "haves" and "have nots," says Elliot Petty of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a member of the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores.

"Everyone, rich or poor, spends money on eating – but if you live in a wealthier community you have more options," says Mr. Petty. "There just needs be a spotlight put on this to develop the political will to change it."

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