Northgate Market and Jamie Oliver program boost South LA food landscape

After nine years of planning, the Northgate Gonzalez Market opened in South Los Angeles in April, becoming one of the area’s few full-service supermarkets committed to offering healthy options such as fresh produce at affordable rates.

“We wanted to prove with sales that we can bring quality to low income families here,” said Victor Gonzalez of Northgate’s marketing team. “We’re having a great response on all the items on the healthy side.”

In South L.A., according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, an estimated 39 percent of adults and 55 percent of teens are considered overweight or obese. UCLA’s report also says 39 percent of South Los Angeles children eat fast food three or more times in a typical week, compared to 18 percent across California.

Gonzalez hopes to help improve the food landscape with Northgate’s health and wellness program, Viva La Salud, in which a third-party company analyzes nutrition information for each item the store carries. Then the store displays nutrition facts in both Spanish and English in easy-to-read graphics.

“We don’t want to misguide people,” said Teresa Blanco, Northgate’s Wellness program manager. “People come to our store with different levels of education, so we want to make it simple as possible.”

See also: South LA residents shop for employment at Juanita Tate Marketplace

Produce occupies a large department of the new store. Before the store opened, it was difficult for shoppers to find produce in their communities, said Blanco. “They’d have to go by bus to other areas to buy healthy options, and now it’s local,” she added.

Northgate purchases produce from the same vendors as many of the large supermarket chains. For example, the organic produce comes from the same distributor that serves Whole Foods and Bristol Farms.

Teresa Blanco shows Northgate nutrition tags as part of the Viva La Salud program.| Michael Nystrom/ Neon Tommy

Teresa Blanco shows Northgate nutrition tags as part of the Viva La Salud program.| Michael Nystrom/ Neon Tommy

Part of Northgate’s funding came from the California FreshWorks Fund, a public-private partnership intended to bring additional forms of grocery retail to California “food deserts.”

Daniel Tellalian of Emerging Markets, Inc., a company that deploys the capital for the FreshWorks, said South L.A. community groups had pushed for greater capital so that local grocers could expand.

“There’s a number of companies and older grocers who are not interested in going into lower income communities or communities of color,” said Tellalian. “I think that independent more forward thinking companies like Northgate are very excited to be here and are not scared and see an opportunity in a place like this.”

Meanwhile, other programs are bringing food education, such as the Jamie Oliver Big Rig Teaching Kitchen — a mobile kitchen classroom that offers free classes and food education to underserved communities.

See also: South LA gets a taste of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

In May, the Big Rig stopped in South L.A. at the Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center and gave cooking lessons to students and staff from the Barack Obama Charter School and the King Drew Medical Magnet High School as well as local wellness and diabetes groups. Each lesson lasted one hour, and the students prepared ingredients and cooked a meal. Scott Bottemer, Big Rig tour manager, said the experience is empowering.

“It provides them with inspiration to know what they’re putting in their bodies and know how to cook, giving them life-changing cooking skills,” he said.

The MLK Choosing Wellness Group at the Jamie Oliver Big Rig | Michael Nystrom / Neon Tommy

The MLK Choosing Wellness Group at the Jamie Oliver Big Rig | Michael Nystrom / Neon Tommy

Jamie Oliver’s goal with the Big Rig is to “get back to scratch cooking.” With the rise of fast food restaurants and processed foods, the amount of time spent cooking in the kitchen has decreased while negative health effects have increased, Oliver has claimed.

Bottemer said the ‘we’re too busy’ mindset is driving a culture of convenience foods.

“You go now to any major grocery store chain, and the chip aisle is a mile long and you can say the same thing about the soda aisle and the frozen food section — which is now not just one aisle but multiple aisles,” said Bottemer.

The Big Rig uses local community chefs and ambassadors in each city on the tour to teach the food education courses. Once the truck leaves, they become “food champions” and a resource for the community.

Carolyne Snow, a Los Angeles “food champion” and Jamie Oliver food ambassador, is a culinary professional who emphasizes sustainable, nutritious and farm-to-table practices. Although some families turn to fast food for the low prices, Snow said those foods don’t provide sufficient nutrition in a single meal.

“If you’re having to buy huge quantities of food to get the nutrition you need versus a small quantity of food, you find that it really isn’t a huge price difference,” said Snow.

For Maria Navar, a diabetic nurse practitioner and member of the MLK Choosing Wellness Group, the classes on the Big Rig taught her to choose quality ingredients and manage her time well when cooking.

South L.A. will depend on people like Navar to demand healthy options in order for the food landscape to improve. After all, many retailers want to see a demand for a certain product – such as healthy food – before stocking it, said Elisa A. Nicholas, chief executive officer of The Children’s Clinic.

“You look at a store in South Los Angeles and many times their produce is not the same quality as that same store would have in an upper middle class area where people would demand fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Nicholas. “You have to address habits, you have to teach skills, you have to change demand.”

The new South L.A. Northgate Gonzalez market is located at 944 E. Slauson Ave. 

This article was originally published on Neon TommyReach Associate News Editor Michael Nystrom here. Follow him on Twitter.

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