South LA creates healthy food options

South L.A. residents are growing vegetables in their backyards. They are converting their corner stores into healthy groceries. They are not waiting anymore for healthy options to come to them.

Click play for the stories of a South L.A. vegan and a corner store transformer:

Arriving at a recent community development meeting in a recreation center in South L.A., Agyei Graham peeked at the breakfast spread of bagels, yogurt and coffee, quietly found a standing room spot in a corner, pulled a red apple from the back pocket of his jeans and bit into it.

The 21-year-old has been a vegan for five months, which means he couldn’t have the yogurt. He could eat the bagels, but he’d have to forgo cream cheese. And he could only have coffee if he wanted it black.

He came prepared with an apple because he didn’t expect a small community meeting to offer vegan options. But he isn’t always prepared with contingency plans. There are days when Graham, who works as a locker room attendant at a swimming stadium, doesn’t have time to pack a meal. There are days when he comes home to an empty fridge because he didn’t find time to go to his favorite grocery store, Sprouts, which is six miles away in Culver City.Those days, he sustains himself only on water.

“I just rough it out,” he said.

Graham decided to become vegan after he started reading online about food corporations that use genetically modified organisms while processing meat, vegetables and fruits.

“I wanted to eat healthier,” he said, adding that corporations come “close to poisoning our food.”

Tam’s Burgers is a five-minute walk from his house, but his nearest vegan option – the Ethiopian restaurant Azla at Mercado La Paloma – is 15 to 20 minutes by bicycle. It’s also the only place nearby that makes vegan pizza.

Graham not only rigorously practices veganism but also eats solely organic food.

Agyei Graham plucking an orange in his backyard | Sinduja Rangrajan

Agyei Graham plucking an orange in his backyard | Sinduja Rangrajan

One time at Sprouts, he insisted that an employee refill the empty organic almonds bulk container, although four other containers offered perfectly good non-organic almonds. He didn’t mind the ten-minute wait.

At home, he keeps two large bags of potatoes on the top of his refrigerator – one organic, the other not. That’s because he has yet to convince his mother and other family members to take up organic eating. Organic food may be more expensive, but it is worth the extra cost, he tells them.

Graham started growing fruits and vegetables in his own backyard after struggling for several months with the limited healthy food options in Vermont Square, where he lives.

He started by growing plants in his closet, as an experiment, and, when his seeds started sprouting, he decided to put his entire backyard to work.

“I just…got a shovel and started diggin’ up everything,” said the 5-foot-4 tall, lanky young man.

He grows kale, spinach, oranges and limes among other produce – giving him a little something for those rough weeks when he can’t make it to Sprouts. His meals might be kale salad, tomato sandwiches or quinoa with vegetables.

Graham is one of many residents who are creating their own solutions to South L.A.’s lack of healthy food options.

Nelson Garcia giving a speech at the opening of Alba Snacks and Services | Sinduja Rangarajan

Nelson Garcia giving a speech at the opening of Alba Snacks and Services | Sinduja Rangarajan

Nelson Garcia, owner of Alba Snacks and Services, recently upgraded his dollar store by investing $30,000 out of his own savings and raising additional funds through Kiva, a micro financing platform, to make such foods available in South L.A.

Before the transformation, Garcia’s store carried the chips-and-soda type of inventory, but now it stocks protein bars, yogurt, fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

“In our neighborhood it’s not so easy to find options to eat healthy, but now we are trying to provide an option for the kids, for the youth, for the children, for the adults,” he said.

See also on Intersections: South LA corner stores turn full-service

Breanna Morrison, a policy analyst at the Community Health Councils, said her organization has been attempting to open more grocery stores while reducing the number of fast food restaurants in South L.A. for nearly six years.

City-adopted initiatives like the fast food moratorium, that bans new fast-food restaurants from opening within half a mile of each other, are bringing about positive changes, but very slowly, Morrison said.

The most notable change, she said, has been the community’s awareness about healthy food – and its demand for more of it.

“We’ve seen…a lot more programming about how do you cook healthier, how do you shop healthier, how do you ensure that your children are eating healthy in school,” Morrison said. “We have seen the community feel empowered around these issues.”

With people like Garcia educating her neighbors and Graham enthusiastically catching on, the narrative of the South L.A. food movement is changing: No longer are residents waiting for big-ticket grocery stores to move in. Instead, they are taking matters into their own hands.

One recent afternoon in his garden, Graham stopped to checked on a tomato plant that’s he’s attempting to clone. He turned over the mud in his compost bin with a shovel, and muttered some words — talking to his plants because he said he believes it helps them grow. To Graham, a backyard garden is more than just a place to cultivate food; it is a sustainable food laboratory.

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