Walking into Compton’s Grocery Outlet on a Tuesday afternoon, one finds a surprisingly cheery scene for a supermarket. Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” plays on the loudspeakers, a young security guard greets shoppers as they enter, and the aisles are labeled with bright colors and jaunty signs.
Kia Patterson, the owner-operator of this Rosecrans Avenue store, has only held the reins for three months but has already become a bit of a local celebrity. Some locals have shown up to fangirl over her — requesting to chat or take photos by her side — while others have offered their services picking up trash outside the store. Some have even sent unsolicited financial donations: checks, with no return address. Patterson also has been hit with a few recent media requests.
The 36-year-old thinks the attention might be due to a sense that she's a “hometown hero” (she was raised on the border of Compton and Lynwood); people also often note that she's the first black grocery store owner in Compton.
None of this makes the limelight any more comfortable for her.
“I’m just coming to work every day. I don’t think that I’m so special but I guess other people think I am so ...” she says. “I mop the floor, I clean the bathroom, I sweep. I do whatever’s necessary here.”
But what Patterson is doing in Compton is unique. As a vegetarian and veteran of the supermarket industry for more than 17 years, Patterson highlights healthy options for her shoppers in a designated aisle called “NOSH,” which stands for natural, organic, specialty, health. On average, 10 percent of store sales come from items in this part of the store, said Patterson, a statistic that proves what she already knew: Even residents in “low-income” areas want access to healthy foods.
Although there are a handful of other grocery stores in the area — including a Superior Grocers and a Smart & Final — their produce tends to sag in caliber, she says.
“A lot of the produce in other markets that are around here are C and D quality, when we have A and B quality for our produce,” she says.
In many wide swaths of Compton and neighboring South Los Angeles — which has a varying definition, but loosely includes more than 20 neighborhoods from Jefferson Park south to Willowbrook — supermarkets of any kind are few and far between. In fact, the number of grocery stores in an area helps determine whether it’s classified as a “food desert,” says Breanna Hawkins, policy director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.
It’s a classification many neighborhoods have struggled to outgrow for years, through city council–led attempts to attract grocery chains to the area, grassroots efforts to increase urban farming, a push for farmers' markets and programs that incentivize smaller neighborhood shops and corner stores to sell healthier food options. As of 2015, South Los Angeles had 46 full-service grocery stores, which equates to 0.57 stores per every 10,000 people, Hawkins says, citing U.S Census County Business Patterns data. In West L.A. in 2015 there were 38 grocery stores but for a much smaller geographic area and population, so the ratio equates to 1.03 stores per 10,000 people, Hawkins says.
“When the food desert issue really became a priority in South L.A., most of the advocates and folks were focusing on grocery-store development,” she says.
There are multiple hurdles to attracting — and keeping — grocery stores in South L.A., including a lack of access to developable land and the pervasive cloud of stigma surrounding the community, Hawkins says. There’s a plethora of vacant plots, but they’re often weirdly shaped or shared by multiple owners, she adds, making development difficult. Much of this land is controlled by absentee owners who live outside the state or even country, which makes it hard to execute land-lease agreements even when there are interested supermarket chains.
There have been a few recent wins for the area. A Trader Joe’s is slated to open next month at the 15-acre USC Village, and although it will be open to everybody, it seems to be most convenient for neighboring USC students and faculty. There’s also a new Smart & Final Extra (an “everyday” version of the grocery wholesaler) that’s expected to open at the District Square multi-use development near the intersection of the Metro Expo and Crenshaw lines. However, this project, slated to begin construction in 2012, has yet to break ground.
So the reality is that over time the number of grocery stores in South L.A. has actually decreased, Hawkins says, and while the diminishing of supermarkets is a trend taking place across Los Angeles, South L.A.’s progress seems permanently stalled.
“There has not been significant change in grocery-store access,” Hawkins says.
Tired of “begging grocery stores to come into the neighborhood,” the Food Policy Council and its network of community groups has focused on creating their own solutions through the proliferation of smaller, local businesses and enterprises, Hawkins says. They’ve been major advocates in the campaign to legalize street vending and helped pass an ordinance that requires all farmers markets in the city to accept EBT.
Most recently, they worked with L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price to pass a new initiative that aims to connect land owners in possession of vacant lots with residents ready and able to grow produce. The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Initiative, approved by the City Council at the end of June and slated to take effect August 6, is an attempt to encourage farming while also addressing the demoralizing eyesores of overgrown and underused lots.
The initiative dictates that property owners who lease their “vacant or unimproved property” to food growers can in return receive state tax benefits. The lot being leased must be between 0.10 acres and three acres in size and be dedicated entirely to agriculture. The property owner also has to sign an agreement with the city to maintain operations for at least five years.
“An initiative like this is exciting because it gives individuals a chance to really be more proactive,” Price says.
The councilman’s Ninth District includes a long swath of South L.A. that straddles the 110 freeway, and within it are approximately 3,000 vacant lots that could be eligible for the program, Price says. Across the county as a whole, there’s a projected 57,000 land parcels that could partake. A pilot program of the initiative launching in Price’s district involves the All Peoples Community Center, a South L.A. social services provider, leasing land to the American Friends Service Committee to create a community garden and training program for neighboring families.
As the city initiative stands now, there’s only a contract required between the landowner and the city, says Hawkins, but there’s nothing that protects the interest of the grower. That’s why the Food Policy Council has been working with the Sustainable Law Center to develop draft language for contracts between landlord and tenant, Hawkins says, as they’ve already heard from about 75 prospective growers and landowners who may be interested in taking advantage of the program.
“Urban agriculture is one of those things that have actually increased over time for South L.A.,” Hawkins says.
In 2013 in South L.A.*, there were 10 community gardens and just one urban farm, according to a report from Cultivate L.A., a research project out of UCLA. In 2017, both those numbers increased, to 19 community gardens and nine urban farms, both dramatically larger figures than those for West and East L.A. as well.
Under the new city incentive program, community members will not only be able to provide themselves and neighbors with homegrown produce but also could turn the opportunity into an economic engine, Hawkins says. By selling fruits and veggies at local farmers markets or through a co-op, entrepreneurs can help sustain the urban agriculture initiative long-term and address some of the long-standing root causes of food deserts, she says, which stretch back decades and include discriminatory developmental policies and economic actions.
“You can’t undo that in a couple of years and you can’t undo that with just one policy,” Hawkins says. “There’s no silver-bullet solution for addressing these issues. There needs to be a lot of strategies that can be tailored to any dynamic of the communities that are impacted.”
These include everything from legalizing street vending — which the L.A. City Council voted to decriminalize in January but is still in the process of being regulated — and the Healthy Neighborhood Market program, which encourages corner stores and liquor shops to carry healthy staples such as fruit and eggs.
Produce by delivery is another increasingly available option in South L.A., from the one-woman startup Süprmarkt, which sells boxes of organic produce, to Imperfect Produce, a much larger operation that debuted in L.A. earlier this year. For about $15 a week, subscribers get a box of fruit and vegetables delivered to their home or office; Imperfect bases its model around reducing food waste by selling the cosmetically flawed produce that mainstream grocers won’t buy.
While “organic produce” is often associated with white, affluent communities, it shouldn’t have to be that way, says Reilly Brock, content manager of the company.
“A food desert is not a given if Imperfect is in the neighborhood,” Brock says. “We’re really trying to do our part to make this stuff accessible.”
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Some improvements may be as simple as changing the way the public and the news media label areas lacking access to fresh, healthy food. Some in South L.A. prefer the term “food oasis,” says Hawkins, which focuses on the area’s potential for growth. Others opt for “food mirage,” which refers to changes occurring in certain pockets of the community, such as USC and Leimert Park, that may or may not actually increase access for the community at large.
For many more, “food apartheid” seems most fitting, Hawkins says, as it speaks to the underlying issues of race and classism.
“The term ‘food desert’ is not something that’s holistically embraced by the South L.A. community,” she says. “Food desert implies it’s something that happens naturally.”
*South L.A. has many definitions. In this case, it is as defined by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.