A Changed Supermarket Landscape in South L.A. 15 Years After Riots
April 27, 2007
In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, some of the most persistent complaints from the residents of South Los Angeles concerned supermarkets. There just weren't enough of them. Are there enough now? KPCC's Rachael Myrow reports.
Rachael Myrow: Reverend Norman Johnson of the First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church has spent a lot of time thinking about groceries lately. Not because he's short a pint of milk.
The Reverend just finished a stretch on a labor-backed blue ribbon commission studying South L.A.'s supermarket scene. He spoke to Los Angeles City Council members a couple of weeks ago.
Reverend Norman Johnson: What we found was distressing and shocking. Those who testified described a two-tier system, both for the workers employed in the grocery stores and the communities these stores either serve or neglect.
Myrow: Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Commission focused on the top three supermarket chains in Southern California: Ralphs, Albertson's, and Vons. The Big Three promised to expand their footprint in South L.A. after the riots fifteen years ago. But, to Reverend Johnson's dismay, they haven't.
Johnson: Low income communities in South and East Los Angeles suffer from inadequate access to low cost and healthy food.
Myrow: But the Big Three make up only 50% of the market. What about the other half?
Jonathan Gold: Jesse, could you come to register 4 please! Jesse, register 4!
Myrow: At the Gigante on Vermont and Slauson, Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold picks up a basket and heads straight for the produce section. For decades, he's enthusiastically championed cross-cultural dining in Southern California. Gold says the vegetables available for sale tell you a lot about the economics of a neighborhood.
Gold: If there are enough rich people, you have broccoli rabe. It's a wonderful Italian green related to a turnip. You sauté it. Good. Down the income scale, cut and cleaned turnip greens. It's a beautiful product. You simmer a ham bone. You toss those in. You got it made. Oh wow, they have the chayotes with OW! The spines on them! And I shouldn't have picked that up.
Myrow: Next, it's off to the meat department. Gold dismisses the tired looking tilapia – but then he spies dinner in the neat rows of beef behind the butcher's counter.
Gold: Hi yeah. Can I have some meat milanesa, please?
Myrow: This Gigante is one of nine the Mexican supermarket chain runs in Southern California – most in economically depressed areas. The stores feature butchers, bakers, and produce geared to Mexican tastes. Setting aside Gold's preference for farmer's markets – there are six in South L.A. – would he go out of his way to shop at Gigante again?
Gold: No, because once you get past the produce, it's more or less like a Food 4 Less. The brands they carry are not particularly exotic or higher in quality that you could find at like a standard Ralphs or Vons.
Myrow: But selection and quality take a back seat to cost for shoppers waiting for the Metro Local 204 bus outside Gigante, which happens to lie across the street from a Superior Super Warehouse. Nurse Donna Gallardo says she prefers Costco.
Donna Gallardo: Por la prices.
Myrow: For the prices.
Gallardo: Si. Porque Albertson's es muy caro.
Myrow: Albertson's, she says, is too expensive. Gallardo has other choices. In the neighborhoods the Big Three appear to ignore, a number of small, local supermarket chains have taken root: Superior Super, Numero Uno, Food 4 Less, El Tapatio, Smart & Final, and Jon's Marketplace.
But they aren't spread evenly across the vast area south of the 10 freeway. Eddie Hinton, a retired L.A. County social worker, lives within a mile of an Albertson's and a Ralphs. But he took two buses to get here from Stocker and Crenshaw... just to check out the Superior.
Eddie Hinton: It was my first time in there. I was just looking.
Myrow: What did you think?
Hinton: I'm going to come back tomorrow with some money and spend some money! They got great bargains over there compared to neighborhood.
Myrow: Labor organizers say that – despite the growth of local chains in recent years – there are still fewer supermarkets per shopper in South L.A. than in richer neighborhoods.
That may change later this year. Tesco, the British retail giant, is cooking up plans to open a hundred "Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets" in the Western United States. Will some of them open in South L.A.? We'll have to wait and see.