Volume 9; No. 3; Summer 1997
Combating Supermarket Flight in Los Angeles
By Michelle Mascarenhas, Project Manager, U.C.L.A. Community Food
Reprinted with permission from The Urban Ecologist
Over the past 30 years, supermarket chains in Los Angeles have closed
older, less profitable urban stores to build bigger and more modern markets
in the suburbs. This trend follows the out-migration of middle-class households
from the city. Remaining inner-city residents, many of whom are low income
and have few transportation choices, have seen their food access diminish
to either corner "mom and pops" with exorbitant prices and poor selection,
or an inconvenient and expensive trip to distant stores. That bus lines
are planned to transport commuters into and out of downtown rather than
to accommodate inner city residents' daily needs aggravates this problem.
The magnitude of supermarket flight is substantial: approximately one
million people in Los Angeles County reside in areas where access to affordable
and nutritious food is a problem. In the remaining supermarkets, prices
tend to be higher than in middle-income areas where supermarkets compete
for highly-mobile customers. The 1993 UCLA Department of Urban Planning
study Seeds of Change found that a basic market basket costs
36 percent of the median income for a typical family in one low-income
neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles versus approximately 12 percent
in the middle-income community of Lakewood.
To increase everyday access to affordable and nutritious food in low-income
communities in Los Angeles, a large group of social service providers,
farmers markets, anti-hunger advocates, and community gardening and greening
organizations have begun to build an alternative food system. These groups
endeavor to create a system which is grounded in communities rather than
corporations and is sustainable rather than subject to the whims of charity
or government support. The Los Angeles Community Food Security Network
is a loose affiliation of groups that share resources, develop more comprehensive
programs, and coordinate advocacy for local food system policies.
Connections made through the Network led to the development of the Watts
Growin' Project. With diverse partners such as the Southland Farmers'
Market Association, the Common Ground Gardening Program, L.A. Harvest,
and the Watts Health Foundation, Watts Growin' works with gardeners at
a two-acre site outside one of their poorest housing projects in the city
to increase their produce sales to the surrounding community. Here, 60
families, primarily of Latino origin, tend traditional crops such as quelite,
tomatillos, and 12-foot-high corn plants. One of 13 projects awarded funding
through the newly established USDA Community Food Projects grants, Watts
Growin's long-term plans include the creation of a label for urban-grown
All the talk of gardens as an economic development opportunity has brought
the Watts Growin' Project together with other market gardens from around
L.A. The collaboration is meeting regularly to share experiences and information
on how to market their harvests. It also is planning a conference in October
which will bring together urban gardeners, farmers' market managers, farmers,
and small-scale produce buyers from restaurants, caterers, and natural
food stores to figure out how the gardens can serve local markets. This
spring, several market gardens in the Bay Area hosted members of the L.A.
group to share their experiences about growing for market. "Because we
are building something so new, we have to learn the ropes of growing on
a small scale for local urban markets," says David Buchbinder of Justiceville
Dome Village, a geodesic dome community for homeless people.
The goal of market gardening varies from garden to garden. With the exception
of the therapeutic Vets Garden in West Los Angeles, the vast majority of
L.A. gardens have been developed to grow for personal consumption. Community
gardens often prohibit the sale of any part of their harvest. Debbie Fryman,
a board member of the American Community Gardening Association and co-founder
of the L.A. Community Garden Council, says "Community gardens should remain
places where people can grow for their own families. However, if there is
space and time and the desire to grow for market, gardens should allow low-income
gardeners to reap this economic development opportunity as well."
While community-based projects like these are essential to building up
food security, inner-city residents still need the option of going to
a full-service supermarket to purchase the items they can't get directly
from the ground. Several stores are beginning to see the need to improve
their service to transit-dependent people, and are offering van service.
El Tapatio in South Central and Fines Market in East L.A. provide a free
ride home to customers who purchase $25 to $30 worth of food. The stores
say the cost of the van service is recovered through increased sales,
reduced shopping-cart loss, and community support. During the 1992 riots,
loyal-customers rallied around Fines Market to prevent it from being looted.
"With the van service," says store owner Alan Fine, "the stores are putting
something back into the community."
While initiatives like these are important, there is an important need
for food security public policy. Between 1994 and 96, the Interfaith Hunger
Coalition, the UCLA authors of Seeds of Change, and Community
Food Security Network members organized an effort to gain city approval
of Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Approved last year but not yet formally
convened, this advisory body (now entitled the L.A. Food Security and
Hunger Partnership) will be composed of 18 representatives from different
sectors of the food system. It will bring together supermarket executives
and community gardeners to review and recommend city policies related
to food and hunger. Potential actions include gaining lower water rates
for community gardens, creating intra-neighborhood shuttle routes, and
seeding new food-related community economic development projects such
as community kitchens or market gardens. Even in a time of fiscal conservatism,
the City Council allocated $280,000 to fund the L.A. Food Security and
Hunger Partnership. In doing so, it took a leap towards making Los Angeles
a more just and livable city.
Michelle Mascarenhas is project manager of the UCLA Community Food Security
Project and co-coordinator of the L.A. Community Food Security Network.
For more information about the Network, please call 310/825-2654. You
can also contact Urban Ecology, located at 405 14th Street, Suite 900,
Oakland, CA 94612, telephone (510)251-6330. The e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note from the Editor: Supermarkets and CRA? What's the link? While
it is widely known that inner-city neighborhoods need access to basic
banking services, it is difficult to comprehend that inner-cities are
struggling to bring grocery stores back to their neighborhoods. For those
living in suburban areas, many large anchor grocery stores with ample
food supplies are easily found; however, some inner city communities lack
the luxury of even one supermarket chain store. The article above, reprinted
from the Urban Ecologist, is food for thought for financial institutions
as they design community development strategies and consider innovative
approaches to addressing the needs of low-income communities.