Working to end ‘food apartheid’

In low-income areas of Los Angeles without supermarkets, small stores are learning to profitably sell healthy foods their customers can afford.

By George B. Sánchez-Tello for Capital & Main

The doorway into La Placita Oaxaqueña—a small corner store in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park neighborhood—frames a view of a red wicker basket overflowing with golden Mexican mangoes next to freshly picked oranges still on their leafy stems. A small sign hanging from the ceiling reads “¡Compra Saludable Aqui!” (Buy Healthy Here!). Next to the card readers at the cashier counter are small plastic containers of red, ripe strawberries flanked by a straw basket of more than a dozen dark green avocados. This presentation is all by design.

Store owner Emilia Lopez shares a receipt with a breakdown of sales so far this year. In a dense, urban neighborhood a mile’s walk from the closest full-service grocery store, Lopez has sold more than $400,000 worth of produce—more than 60% of her annual sales. And it isn’t yet Christmas, the biggest sales day of the year. “Es lo que mas se vende,” Lopez says in Spanish—produce is what sells the most in her small store. 

La Placita Oaxaqueña’s success matters not only to Lopez and her neighborhood, but to businesses and communities across California. Making the sale of fruits and vegetables cost effective to corner markets and convenience stores could unlock access to wholesome food for millions in low-income communities across California and improve health outcomes.

As of 2015, nearly 3 million low-income Californians lived too far from a full-service market to access affordable nutritious food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. For urban communities, that means more than one mile and for rural communities, more than 10 miles.

The small markets and convenience stores where those residents shop often can not afford to stock fresh produce, said Alba Velasquez, executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, a nonprofit established to ensure affordable access to healthy food. The Food Policy Council’s work includes supporting convenience stores like La Placita Oaxaqueña as well as urban farming.

“Healthy food is a high-risk investment for small markets,” Velasquez said. The produce supply chain is complex and favors major markets that can afford industrial orders that require 18-wheel tractor-trailers and loading docks. Low-income communities of color, Velasquez explains, are typically inundated with fast-food restaurants and don’t have a full-service grocery store. High rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in low-income communities of color are directly correlated to the lack of access to healthy food, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Low-income communities without full-service grocery stores had been called “food deserts,” a term that even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stopped using. Many instead call the lack of access “food apartheid,” to highlight the lack of both private industry investment and government support.

In Los Angeles, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have three times as many small markets as more affluent white neighborhoods, with half as many full-service grocery stores, according to the Food Policy Council.

Velasquez said the LAFPC decided to work on making healthy foods available at the markets where residents were already shopping. “Rather than waiting on Ralphs or Krogers to come in, why not look at assets that exist and see these small markets as health food access points?” she said.

About eight years ago, the Food Policy Council began urging small markets and convenience stores to start selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal was to serve residents who lived within a half mile walk from the store through the burgeoning Healthy Neighborhood Market Network. The program led to markets offering fresh produce by connecting store owners with fruit and vegetable distributors. The Food Policy Council assumed that initiating the distribution of fresh food was all that needed to be done. In reality, stores, while interested in the healthy options, needed additional support in marketing, store design and a study of customer habits. Not considered in the initial effort was the difficulty of stocking produce in a market designed for processed foods that don’t require refrigeration. Produce that was not sold quickly would often go bad, at a loss to the store owners.

Three years into the program, the Food Policy Council reconsidered its approach, assigning a business counselor to help store owners. The business counselor advised markets on how to present produce more attractively to drive demand, and how to better manage the inventory to extend freshness.

For La Placita Oaxaqueña, there were immediate design changes: a reflective, vinyl floor to cover the crumbling concrete floor that used to soak up light—the inside of the store is brighter. Yellow trim inside and outside the store accentuate the light.

Customers were assisted in enrolling in food-assistance programs, like EBT and WIC, which help generate revenue for fruit and vegetable sales. Today, customers receive $10 of fruit and vegetables for every $10 spent on food with EBT or WIC, through the state and federally funded Market Match program.

Business owners are taught about produce management—avocados, apples and bananas shouldn’t be stored together because the gas naturally released by bananas makes avocados and apples ripen faster, cutting their shelf life.

Before La Placita Oaxaqueña joined the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network, Lopez offered her customers fruits and vegetables. But the refrigerator was at the back of the market, where customers seldom went.

The old refrigerator is still there, but now there are two rows of fresh fruit and vegetables facing customers when they walk in.

Velasquez estimates the Food Policy Council has worked with about 70 stores across the city of Los Angeles since the program began. It is applying to expand to Los Angeles County. In 2024, the LAFPC plans to expand a pilot program to connect small markets and convenience stores with small, local urban farms.

According to at least one store, it is working. “The program has helped the community, and the community has helped us,” Lopez said.

In the meantime, Lopez is planning for an increased stream of customers in the days leading up to Christmas Eve. The majority of the neighborhood is Guatemalan. Customers will be buying ingredients for ponche, a traditional warm punch made from fresh fruit. They won’t have to leave the neighborhood to find the ingredients.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main


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