Ramona Gardens offers non-traditional restaurant experience

Ramona Gardens is not a place many Angelenos would happen upon. Encased by freeways, railroad tracks and the University of Southern California’s hospital, it is difficult to get to. The streets are wide and many of the buildings are empty, with paint chipping off their brick walls. A large apartment complex sprawls across one block, clothesline strung in front of every door. Power lines frame the buildings.

There are no grocery stores, no farmers markets and no community gardens. Ramona Gardens is a food desert, an urban area where people don’t have ready access to healthy foods.

The nearest restaurants are south of the 10 freeway, about a mile away. Many residents don’t have cars and, even if they were to make the trek, they can’t afford restaurant prices.

Ramona Gardens is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The median family income is less than half that of the national average, and 37 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

But once a week, restaurants come to town.

In a little grassy area just south of the apartment complex, a bevy of food vendors gather every Saturday morning. They set up collapsible tables and chairs, pitch tents and fire up grills. They sell pupusas, meat, veggies, fruit, funnel cake, sopas and quesadillas. People all over Ramona Gardens come.

“They’re like restaurants without walls,” said Jeanette Castro, who grew up in Ramona Gardens. For many, said Castro, this market is the one time a week where the neighborhood can eat food they didn’t prepare themselves.

Like most of the residents, the food vendors are Mexican immigrants. Teotu Reyes moved from Puebla, Mexico, seven years ago. She started selling food at the markets a couple of months ago to help pay the rent when her family couldn’t find work.

“There aren’t any jobs right now,” Reyes said. None of her family is legal, and work is hard to come by. “We don’t know how to read. We don’t know how to do another job. We’re country people, and that’s what we know how to do.”

So Reyes came to work at the market. She sells traditional Mexican food, just like she did when she lived in Puebla. She still wears the blue-plaid apron she brought with her from Mexico.

Now Reyes has regular customers. Many of the regulars are quenching a little homesickness; they love that they can order their favorite from back home, said Reyes.

“There are restaurants down there,” said Reyes, waving to the south, “but who can afford them?”

At her booth, as with many of the vendors, you can get a full meal for around $2 to $4.

“You can tell they’re all really grateful,” said Reyes. “You can tell they like coming here, ordering food, and sitting down to eat.”

Reyes comes at 5 a.m. with everything to build her booth: two plywood tables, a tent, coolers and cooking things. It takes her over an hour to set it up. By 7 a.m., the market is already swarming with customers.

The vendors aren’t there legally. They used to rent spaces in a parking lot for $5 a piece. They changed the venue to avoid paying the fee, and suddenly all types of businesses moved in – make-up, plants, new and used clothes, toys, shoes and produce. Now the scene resembles a hybrid between a garage sale, Mexican mercado and a Saturday market.

Some bring things from their own homes to sell. Others are business owners with merchandise. Few may have stolen merchandise, such as a card table with dozens of used watches in neat rows.

While Ramona Gardens is not in South Los Angeles, residents must go there to get to restaurants or grocery stores. And once there, they will find significantly fewer options than more affluent communities in Los Angeles.

In South L.A., there is one restaurant for every 1,910 people, verse West L.A. that has one restaurant for every 542, according to the Community Health Council, a think tank in South Los Angeles. What’s more, 1 in 4 South L.A. restaurants are fast food, compared to one in ten in the West.

Not having restaurants is hard on a community. Restaurants create a space for civic society to grow.

Gloria Lopez, a fictitious name to protect her identity as an undocumented person, comes to the market and sells barbecue chicken. But she can’t make it every Saturday. Though she depends on the market for income, sometimes she doesn’t have enough money the following week to buy the chicken.

Those weeks, she said, are devastating. She can barely feed her family.

But in a small way, this market is stimulating the Ramona Garden’s economy. It provides a place for commerce to happen.

“I don’t know what we’d do if we couldn’t come here,” said Lopez.

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Experts discuss the ‘politics of food’ in South L.A.

imageThis week, the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health released new dietary guidelines. Updated every five years, the food pyramid taught in classrooms around the nation is a beacon of healthy food choices.

This year, the pyramid says Americans have been eating too much salt, so much so, in fact, that it urges them to cut their salt intake in half.

Despite the revamping of the food pyramid, despite the flashy graphics and colorful design that becomes more aesthetically pleasing twice a decade, Americans are getting fatter. Almost one third of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, compared to about 15 percent 30 years ago. Diabetes rates are skyrocketing.

The food pyramid is based on the assumption that good nutrition stems from individual behavior; individual behavior drives our consumption. People make choices, and making a healthy choice is a good decision. The question becomes, can everyone make that same healthy choice?

David Sloane, professor of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, says we can’t. Sloane spoke Thursday in the Tudor Campus Center to a room full of University of Southern California students and faculty. He was one of four speakers during a lunch panel discussion on the “Politics of Food.”

Sloane, who has been studying food distribution for 11 years, says residents of South Los Angeles have far fewer choices than those in more affluent communities.

It is a crisis of equity.

Sloane’s research team did a series of comparisons between restaurants and grocery stores in West and South Los Angeles in 2001 and 2006, and is gearing up for another round this year.


Sloane’s team found that there was a discrepancy both in choice of restaurants and on the menus within the restaurants in South and West Los Angeles.

“West Los Angeles is one of those places where people have the ability to make those choices,” said Sloane. “It’s one of the richest food environments one could imagine in the United States. There are tons of fast food restaurants, but there are tons of fast food restaurants everywhere in the United States. The difference is, do you have a choice?”

Three quarters of the restaurants in South Los Angeles are fast food restaurants, compared to less than half of the restaurants in West Los Angeles.

“But restaurant distribution are just points on a map,” said Sloane. He also wanted to know about the options once inside the restaurant.

In 2001 and 2002, Sloane sent people into restaurants to answer a simple question of the menus. Not of people, just the menus. The surveyors noted the transparency of healthy alternatives.

The difference was statistically significant. In West Los Angeles, it was common; in South Los Angeles, it was practically nonexistent.

These choices, or lack thereof, make up the profile of the separate food systems. To create a comprehensive food profile of the two areas, the team factored in grocery stores, community gardens and alternative sources of food.

Sloane discovered that places with high minority or low-income populations have a very different profile than places with lots of money. Namely, they have far fewer choices.

“The simple statement that policy makers often make to those kinds of people, ‘Oh, just eat better, and you’ll be healthier,’ isn’t actually that easy to do,” said Sloane.

The impact is evident. South Los Angeles has both the poorest and most overweight people in the Southland. Over 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Thirty-five percent of adults are overweight or obese.

Grocery Stores

imageGrocery stores between the two communities had a gap just as wide as restaurants.

“I’m an aficionado of Trader Joe’s,” said Sloane. “I can go to Washington and I can go to Trader Joes, I can go to Atlanta and go to Trader Joe’s, but I can’t go to Trader Joe’s in South Los Angeles.”

When looking at a map of grocery store locations in Los Angeles, the sparse distribution of stores in South Los Angeles might make one think that the community can’t support more. Sloane says that isn’t true.

Through tracking spending patters, Sloane found that tens of millions of dollars are exported annually to the ring of grocers around South Los Angeles, such as Culver City, Westchester and Downtown Los Angeles.

Not only does this mean money is leaving the already impoverished community, but it also indicates the grocers within South Los Angeles are not meeting the needs of the residents.

The team created a neighborhood food watch. Made up of community residents, the food watch group went to grocery stores with a checklist. They found a significant amount of grocery stores in South Los Angeles have expired food on the shelves. Sloane was surprised to learn that that there is no governmental body that regulates expired food in the US, with the exception of baby formula. Everything else is managed by private sector manufactures.

Steps Taken

The group came up with strategies to address problems at restaurants and stores.

Working with the community redevelopment agency and grocers, they began a campaign to get better food into South Los Angeles grocery stores about 10 years ago.

The group also developed incentives for grocers to move into South Los Angeles, including subsidies for opening stores in underserved neighborhoods.

Sloane says the initiatives have made a difference. “Is the food profile different today? Yes, it’s better than it was back then. It’s not better enough, there’s not enough choices, and there’s still big food deserts, places where it’s hard to make those choices.”

It was more difficult to think of solutions for restaurants. Because a large part of the problem were lack of choices within restaurants and a saturation of fast food, advocates pushed for a moratorium on fast food restaurants while the residents of South Los Angeles figured out how to improve the food system.

In the fall of 2008, the Los Angeles City Council passed the Interim Control Ordinance. The ordinance made a two-year ban on permits for stand-alone fast food restaurants.

When the ban ended last fall, residents came to the city council with a new solution: they wanted to manage the number of curb cuts.

All drive-thrus need to cut into the curb so cars can go in one side and come out the other. That means two new curb cuts per a fast food restaurant. By controlling the number of curb cuts, the community can control the number of new fast food restaurants.

The Planning Commission, the body that currently regulates the number of curb cuts, passed a piece of legislation giving the control of curb cuts to the communities in South Los Angeles.

Though it is small, it is enough to ensure South Angelenos can prevent fast food restaurants from clustering in one area.

What Next?

Sloane’s group hopes to create an economic food development food trust. Modeled after a program in Pennsylvania, the trust would have resources for people to start grocery stores in underserved communities that they would then pay back into the trust.

To address the lack of healthy options in restaurants, Sloane wants to create healthy food zones to complement the idea of curb cuts. The program would provide subsidize to healthy restaurants.

“We don’t just try to keep bad food out; we try to get good food into South Los Angeles,” said Sloane.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons