South LA corner stores try to get healthy

Oaks Jr market

Oak’s Jr. Market in Jefferson Park is undergoing a market conversion.

There’s not a lot of merchandise on the shelves at Oak’s Jr. Market these days. The refrigerators along the wall keep some beers and sodas cool. A shelf stores canned chili and Aunt Jemima syrup. But the shelves below the sign that reads “Fresh Produce” sit vacant, waiting to be filled with fruits and vegetables.

Gus Harris Jr., the store’s owner, has been slimming down his merchandise in preparation for big changes. Within the next few months, this modest shop on the corner of Jefferson and Fifth Avenue in Jefferson Park will begin a transformation into a healthier version of its current self. Harris keeps a copy of the plans for the store’s redesign right behind the counter.

“They’ll open this up all the way to the back wall,” he says, pointing to the sketched shelving units on the well-worn pages.

Harris gestures to the row of soda vending machines in front of the store saying, “There’ll be tables and chairs outside where people can drink coffee.”

Harris’ will be one of the first stores to be converted by the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council as part of the organizations’ Community Market Conversion program. The program is attempting to promote healthy eating around the city, especially in South L.A., an area often classified as a “food desert” for its lack of full-service grocery stores and its high density of fast food restaurants.

Unhealthy food has health consequences

“This community needs better food, more nutritional food,” said Reverend Eugene Marzette of the Trinity Baptist Church, just five blocks away from Oak’s Jr. Market. “There are a lot of people who won’t go to the big grocery stores because they just don’t have transportation.”  Marzette added that he has witnessed nutrition-related health issues “running rampant” among his parishioners.

Rates of obesity and related illnesses, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes, are consistently higher in South L.A. than in most of L.A. County, according to the county Department of Public Health. Research by Community Health Councils Inc. found that life expectancy in South L.A. is eight years shorter than in West L.A. and cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of premature death in the area. The Food Policy Council hopes that freshening up stores like Oak’s Jr. Market will improve those issues.

At Oak’s Jr. Market, the remodel will be the first major overhaul the store has had since Harris became the store’s owner about 30 years ago. An L.A. native, Harris came across the store for sale when he worked as a delivery truck driver for a bread company. Since he took over, he has strived to make his store a fixture in the Jefferson Park community.

“I have parents that tell their children, ‘Go to Oak’s and I’ll get you when I get there,’” Harris said. “I’ve been here long enough that the children have grown up and they bring their children. And so you become part of the family.”

When not busy with the store, Harris has sought out other ways to connect with his community as well. He serves as a member of his Neighborhood Council and on the Jefferson Park Improvement Project.

Project slowed by CRA demise

It was this neighborhood involvement that caught the attention of the Community Redevelopment Agency. The agency, which created the Community Market Conversion program, drew up plans to revitalize Oak’s Jr. Market along with three other South L.A. stores: Mama’s Chicken on Slauson Avenue, Las Palmas Carniceria on Central Avenue, and Money Saver Meats on Florence Avenue.

Clare Fox, strategic initiatives coordinator for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, said that the Community Redevelopment Agency promised to invest about $75,000 in each of the four stores. But when the agency was dissolved in a State Supreme Court decision in 2011, the plans for the stores started seeing long delays while the Community Redevelopment Agency began to finish its open projects and the Food Policy Council prepared to take over the next phase of the program. Harris has been waiting about two years to finally see his store transform.

“We’re all just trying to keep our spirits up,” Harris said of the storeowners, adding that he is excited to be moving forward. “It better happen soon. I’m running out of money,” he joked.


Gus Harris Jr.

Gus Harris, Jr. is owner of Oak’s Jr. Market in Jefferson Park

Harris downsized his merchandise and his staff in preparation for his store’s overhaul. He had two employees, but now he runs the store by himself. When the store gets its facelift and its first loads of healthier foods, Harris is confident business will pick up.

The four stores undergoing renovation will serve as a test run for future store conversions. Fox said that at this point, the evidence that transforming a neighborhood liquor store into a healthy purveyor of produce actually translates to better business and healthier communities is, for the most part, anecdotal. She said she hopes the future success of Oak’s Jr. Market and the other three stores undergoing conversions will provide the Council with the hard numbers they need to attract other market owners to the program.

When the Food Policy Council took on the Community Market Conversion program from the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Council changed its strategy for encouraging market transformations. The Food Policy Council is working on developing a future program that will offer small grants to market owners. But in its current incarnation, the Council is offering loans of about $20,000 to $40,000 to small business owners looking to get healthy on their own.

Harris will still receive grant-funded money from the Community Redevelopment Agency for his store’s makeover, but he supports the Food Policy Council’s new loan program.

“Mom and pop stores never would have been able to get a loan before,” he said.

Financial risks in healthy grocery business

Starting a healthy grocery business can be financially risky. A storeowner can buy bags of potato chips cheaply in bulk and keep them on the shelf for a long time. A bag of salad greens, on the other hand, requires refrigeration and if it doesn’t sell, it will go bad at the expense of the vendor.

Fox said that’s the reason the Community Market Conversion program includes not just financial assistance but business advice.

“We don’t want anyone to lose money,” Fox said. “We want them to think, ‘Ah! This is a new and thriving part of my business.’”

Her organization has started holding small conferences for mom and pop market owners with workshops covering how to obtain food permits, design a floor plan that appeals to customers, and store produce in a way that keeps it fresh longer.

Though South L.A. has about half the number of full-service grocery stores per capita than West L.A., according to Community Health Councils Inc., Fox said the idea is not just to bring big retailers to the neighborhood.

“It’s basically investing in the [area’s] existing food retail landscape,” she said.

Harris knows his small store might never compete with the big names, but hopes converting his store will make him a convenient, healthy resource to his neighbors.

“[Customers] will come in and they will buy a candy bar or they will buy a bag of chips,” Harris said, “We would like to replace those candy bars and bags of chips with a fresh apple or a fresh orange.”

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