On a Sunday evening last August, in downtown L.A.'s overly air-conditioned Regent Theatre, Roy Choi and two other chefs worked methodically on a stage cooking dishes to hand out to the packed house. Audience members clamored for samples of Choi’s cooking — including his famous Kogi fusion tacos — beaming like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
Yet the event — called “To Live and Dine in L.A.,” at which various activists, rappers and even Norman Lear came out to riff on food in Los Angeles — started to drag by 7 p.m. By 10 p.m., most of the audience hadn't stuck around to finally hear Choi speak (or, perhaps more accurately, preach) about his new venture, Locol. The restaurant aims to serve healthy, quality fast food in a neighborhood with limited fresh produce options, where restaurants are nearly all of the McDonald’s and Burger King variety.
“What we decided was to go right next to McDonald’s, go right next to Burger King, right next to Taco Bell,” Choi told the crowd in a Howard Dean–like frenzy, before he was interrupted momentarily by cheers. “And let’s feed the homeless, let’s feed the families, let’s feed the children, let’s feed the community, let’s feed the neighborhood, let’s do what we possibly can as chefs.”
“So that’s Locol starting in Watts, Los Angeles,” he concluded, capping off a manifesto for a project that he and business partner Daniel Patterson would finally launch last month, in the heart of one of L.A.’s most neglected and underdeveloped neighborhoods.
Watts is a food desert, a low-income area where there is little access to healthy food in stores or restaurants. Almost all the restaurants in the area serve food linked with higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Locol's chief mission is to offer an alternative at similar fast-food prices, along with providing economic opportunities for the neighborhood. Choi says that 99 percent of the restaurant staff live in, or are from, Watts.
Judging from the restaurant’s opening day — Martin Luther King Day — Choi and Patterson's long-gestating project is off to a strong start. Watts residents and other Angelenos lined up for hours down Anzac Street. Customers dug into the barbecue turkey burgers with buttermilk mayo and ginger, chili and lime noodle bowls. Locals worked the kitchen, the registers, the door. The sheer amount of media coverage — local news trucks, film shoots, a sea of reporters — was an anomaly in this part of town.
Of course, Watts’ problems with getting access to healthy food, intertwined with so many other socioeconomic issues, go back more than 50 years. How much can a single restaurant do to reverse the tide?
From the 1940s until the early 2000s, Watts was a predominantly black neighborhood (it's now 70 percent Latino). Its residents regularly experienced institutionalized racism within its 2.1 square miles, especially at the hands of the police. On Aug. 11, 1965, an argument over the arrest of 21-year-old Marquette Frye, who had been stopped by a California Highway Patrol Officer for reckless driving, escalated into the six-day Watts Rebellion, which almost completely destroyed Watts’ business infrastructure.
Aqeela Sherrills, a community organizer whose family has lived in Watts since the 1940s (and who is one of Locol’s managers), describes what the rebellion did to food access in the neighborhood: “The whole community burned down, you know, literally — restaurants, clothing stories, cleaners, ice cream shops, hot dog stands, everything.”
Sherrills says that when it came time to rebuild, the only restaurants that would move back in were fast food chains. He says that when businesses ran cost-benefit analyses and looked at Watts' median household incomes, their response was, “‘These communities can't afford our product’ — at least that’s what they said. So we didn’t [even] have Applebee’s.”
In addition to the loss of restaurants, the number of grocery stores offering fresh fruits and vegetables also dwindled. “I have to go to Manhattan Beach to go grocery shopping, because they shut down the Fresh & Easy down the street,” says Tim Watkins, executive director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.
Locol is far from the first attempt to try to combat this problem. The Watts Healthy Farmers Market was established in the neighborhood in 2007 to address the dearth of decent grocery stores. “There are a couple of grocery stores within a two-mile radius of the market, but the fresh fruits and vegetables there are awful. So we are the best alternative,” says James Haydu, executive director of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE LA), which owns the market and runs farmers markets in several other underserved L.A. neighborhoods.
The Watts Healthy Farmers Market has so far succeeded in bringing a variety of quality produce to Watts residents at affordable prices. The produce is accessible to those who depend on EBT and WIC benefits to purchase food through a program called Market Match, which matches up to $10 of fruits and veggies at the market. “It just makes an amazing amount of difference to have 10 extra dollars a week,” says Jackie Sauceda-Rivera, who manages Market Match for SEE LA. “It’s all going to be used on fresh produce. It’s not going to be used on popcorn or hotdogs or anything like that.”
Watts resident Alejandra Garcia, 28, attends the market every week with her husband and two children. She says that because of Market Match and the quality of the food, she not only spends less money than at the local grocery store, but the food she buys lasts longer. “I can spend $50 here, and what I bought lasts for two weeks,” she says, “compared to if I spend twice as much at the store, and have the food last just a week.”
Choi is hoping to deliver a similar sense of value at Locol, where the most expensive item on the menu is $6.
“We imagine the menu,” Choi says, “and then once we cook it, we break it down. If it’s too expensive, then we look for a technique to bridge it.” When it came to moving into Watts, the Locol team called on those who had a long relationship with and knowledge of the neighborhood to help come up with dishes that would appeal to the community
“There’s a big difference between pressing yourself upon someone and asking permission, so we asked permission,” Choi says. He spoke to Sherrills, who offered to be Choi’s bridge to the community and helped him speak to people at community meetings and knock on doors. “It was like I was running for office,” he jokes. “But it wasn’t political; it was completely soulful.”
Some residents say they are optimistic about Locol's goals.
“I think this will build Watts up,” Perrine Madison says. “It’ll create a job or two, and it’ll get a lot of business. The kids [from Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School, just across the street from Locol] won’t have to go too far to get food.”
While Locol and the Watts Healthy Farmers Market seek to provide healthy food to Watts, there’s another nascent venture that intends to empower the neighborhood to grow its own food, a proposal that's perhaps even more ambitious. This project is called Mudtown Farms, and it's spearheaded by Tim Watkins, of the WLCAC.
I sat in Watkins’ office one day last summer, drinking a paper cup of fruit-infused water from a large glass pitcher at the WLCAC’s reception desk. Watkins showed me a color drawing of the proposed farm, still in the planning stage. The site will have a mixed-use orchard, land for sustainable agriculture and “vertical gardens” of stainless steel grids along Mudtown Farms’ perimeter. “We’re gonna grow along the fence lines, as much as we can, things that you can walk up and eat, so berries, cherry tomatoes, whatever we can grow to just consume right on the spot.”
Mudtown Farms will also utilize what residents are already growing in their own yards, recruiting them to be “yardeners.”
“The yardeners are people that grow in the backyards and have for the last 100 years or more in Watts — huge, huge quantities of avocado, orange, nectarine, loquat, guava, just you name it, all kinds of beautiful fruit trees are growing in the backyards of Watts area residents. And more often than not, it’s going to waste.”
Mudtown Farms personnel will train residents in sustainable growing techniques and will inspect and certify the site that they grow on. They will then help the gardeners sell their bounty under the Mudtown Farms name. The yardeners who excel will get to tend plots at Mudtown Farms’ master gardener center and can package and distribute their food on-site.
In a few years, Mudtown Farms hopes to grow a community-run network that supplies both local business and residents. Along with Locol and the Watts Healthy Farmers Market, they represent three distinct but intertwined projects that aim to alter the way an entire neighborhood eats.
“If we do this right, we come out of it with beautiful access to food that can be served at the local schools, at the local homes and the local hamburger stands,” Watkins says, “where someone is trying to make that transition into a healthier set of choices.”