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Transforming Food Deserts: A Food Justice Tour of South Los Angeles

Earl Lui

For a while now, I've thought about how to provide funders with opportunities to see our food justice grantees doing amazing work in South L.A.  I want to help our fellow foundations to see that access to healthy food in underserved communities is more than just a health issue—it’s an economic justice issue. Community-rooted food businesses can help transform unhealthy food deserts by creating jobs, a sense of place and stable neighborhoods.

I had a chance to realize this vision when my colleague Fatima Angeles, Cal Wellness’ Vice President of Programs, and I participated in a funders' bus tour sponsored by Southern California Grantmakers, and underwritten by Cal Wellness. Conversations with Clare Fox, Executive Director of our grantee the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), led to the development of the tour.

In South L.A., there are a number of "food deserts." According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are defined as areas devoid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.

In the case of these areas of South L.A., there are no grocery stores, and typically the areas are inundated with fast-food outlets and corner stores that primarily sell junk food and liquor. Our grantees like LAFPC and Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN)—who worked together on planning the tour—and other visionary nonprofit organizations are trying to change those conditions.

On the bus heading to our first stop, we heard from Breanna Hawkins, policy director for LAFPC about the years of disinvestment that led to South L.A. becoming a food desert. Our first stop was Hank's Mini-Market, located at W. Florence Avenue and 11th Avenue. Kelli Jackson inherited the store from her father. Previously it been a typical corner store, primarily selling liquor. Take a look at how it looks now:

Exterior of Hank's Mini Market. Hank's was transformed from a corner liquor store to a community space selling fresh food.

Interior of Hank's Mini Market, now offering fresh food options for the community.

LAFPC's Healthy Neighborhood Market Network program, which provides technical assistance to corner stores to help them become healthy food outlets, facilitated this amazing transformation. LAFPC helped connect Kelli with Sweetgreen, the healthy fast casual restaurant, which provided additional support for the transformation completed earlier this year. While it's still early days for the new Hank's, Kelli told us that she has tripled her monthly revenue since the transformation – thus showing that selling healthy food rather than liquor is not only good for the community but good for a store owners' bottom line. "When you're a liquor store," she told us, "the only customers you attract are those wanting to buy liquor. When you're a grocery store, you attract families and others that want to buy food."

Kelli Jackson, owner of Hank's Mini Market, speaks about the transformation of her business.

Kelli's store also serves as a community gathering place, with healthy eating, cooking and nutrition education programming, and a space for kids to come and do homework. Hank's Mini-Market's transformation was profiled in Los Angeles Magazine and the LA Weekly, and you can follow Hank's on Facebook or Twitter.

Our second stop was Emma's Meat Market:

Emma's Meat Market recently received a loan to begin its transformation.

This small market received a micro loan from LURN to help its owners to begin transforming its business. The market is also considering joining another program of LURN, known as COMPRA (Community Markets Purchasing Real and Affordable) Foods, a cooperative social enterprise that distributes fresh produce to small markets like Hank's and Emma's. Our grant to LURN will help support and expand COMPRA. On the tour, we learned many small corner stores do not stock fresh produce because of a lack of wholesale distributors serving those markets. Instead, owners have to drive out of their neighborhoods to supermarkets or big-box stores like Costco to buy produce at retail, and then mark it up to sell in their stores.

Our next stop was the Paul Robeson Community Wellness Center, operated by Community Services Unlimited. The Wellness Center is a community meeting space, and CSU operates the Village Market Place, a healthy grocery store, downstairs:

The Paul Robeson Community Wellness Center, operated by Community Services Unlimited, serves as a meeting space for the community.

Our final stop was at Community Health Councils, a prior Cal Wellness grantee. CHC is planning an ambitious new food centered development project in South L.A., combining affordable housing, a supermarket, a hydroponic urban farm and a food distribution business. Here's a drawing of the development by their internationally renowned architecture firm, Morphosis:

Artist's rendering of food-centered development project.

This development would be a game-changer for the neighborhood, and serve as a prime example of how healthy food access, neighborhood stabilization through affordable housing, and job creation can all come together.

All in all, Fatima and I learned a lot on this tour. We were greatly inspired by the work of so many dedicated individuals and organizations working to transform South L.A. from a healthy food desert to a healthy food oasis.

Earl Lui
Program Director Earl Lui

Earl Lui leads grantmaking related to advancing health care reform and the Affordable Care Act and fostering healthy environments.

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