South L.A.'s Food Desert May Be Getting Some Organic, Homegrown Relief

After suffering a spate of grocery store closings in the past few years, South Los Angeles might see a huge reversal of that trend.

On June 16, Community Services Unlimited (CSU) — the South L.A. nonprofit that’s been working on food justice issues since the '70s — closed on a 5,000-square-foot building at the corner of 66th Street and Vermont Avenue. CSU plans to transform it into the neighborhood’s first beyond-organic produce market, where shoppers would be able to buy fresh produce from CSU’s network of urban farms, alongside the company’s own line of organic products such as vinegars, oils, pickles, tea blends and jams.

CSU also intends to stock the shelves with healthy snacks and sodas from South L.A. producers, and to ultimately open an on-site, farm-to-table café, according to CSU executive director Neelam Sharma. Sharma says that down the line, the group would like to introduce yoga classes, an acupuncture clinic and other health services.

Sharma expects the extensive buildout to take months, but residents might not have to wait that long to reap the benefits — CSU says it will soon turn the parking lot into a produce stand and a site for workshops and events. Rapper Aloe Blacc recently signed on to help by producing a fundraising video for the project. 

Renderings for the new South L.A. organic market by architect Theresa Hwang.EXPAND
Renderings for the new South L.A. organic market by architect Theresa Hwang.
Theresa Hwang

Solving geographic disparities in access to fresh, healthy food across the city of Los Angeles has long vexed policymakers. Luring such businesses to the area has proved difficult, and in 2008, the L.A. City Council approved a moratorium on new, stand-alone fast food outlets in the area. 

But, as Adam Chandler wrote in The Atlantic in March, an approach that focuses on businesses that shouldn't operate in a neighborhood doesn't magically attract businesses that should. Between 2007 and 2011, according to a recent RAND Corporation study Chandler quotes, obesity rates in South L.A. continued to rise along with nationwide rates, despite the fast-food ban — which, by the way, does nothing to prevent large supermarkets from selling high-sugar food. Moreover, it's not just the availability of healthy food but also the price of it that plays a role in what people buy. Changing habits and attitudes isn't necessarily as cut-and-dried as offering access.

Factoring challenges like these into the big picture illustrates why CSU's project is especially well positioned to make an impact, says Clare Fox, director of policy and innovation at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. "What a project like CSU's demonstrates is that it's about wellness overall," Fox says. "There needs to be a holistic approach that transforms the environment." 

The nonprofit likes to tout a study by USC business students comparing the price point of their organic produce favorably against comparable non-organic items from corporate grocers. Much of that food is grown right where it's sold, and for Fox, this homegrown organic market is more likely to succeed precisely because the community is getting in on the ground floor.

"There are a lot of other complementary parts that this particular project achieves," Fox says. "It's about neighborhood identity, empowerment, a sense of community ownership and just a sense of dignity and fairness. A sense that South L.A. can have what other communities have."


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