Grocery store workers rally for Fresh & Easy employees

imageOutside the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in Eagle Rock, 60 labor activists and grocery store employees lined up on the sidewalk to rally today against unsafe working conditions and alleged union-breaking tactics at the store.

Before the rally, a union field organizer handed out picket signs and arranged participants to make sure the Fresh & Easy sign would in the background for media coverage.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein addressed the crowd by recalling a speech made by Martin Luther King Jr., in which King voiced support for a labor movement in Memphis the day before he was killed on April 4, 1968.

“We’re here to talk about Fresh & Easy and its commitment to the rights of workers to organize, just as Dr. King spoke about sanitation workers just shy of half a century ago,” said Klein, a member of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice.

Organizers used the 43rd anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to highlight safety problems at the store and efforts of store workers to unionize.

Activists held up signs to passing cars and handed out stickers for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents employees in the food industry and helped arrange the rally.

The Fresh & Easy grocery store chain has a total of 171 stores with one that opened last year in South Los Angeles. The stores are a subsidiary of British company Tesco.

Fresh & Easy employees came forward to explain why they participated. Mike Acuna pointed to a camera above the doors of the store and said it has been used to monitor for union activity. But he said he was not afraid of being fired.

“We workers want to be out there and express our right to unionize because we feel that’s the only way that we can create change in the company,” said Acuna. “I know I have a right to stand here.”

Acuna, a 34-year-old Highland Park resident, said he was injured on the job when he pulled his back while unloading cases of groceries. He claimed the store last year began requiring employees to unload 65 boxes per hour, a marked increase.

On March 26, 2010, Acuna said 21 employees signed a petition for better health and safety conditions and presented it to the management. Employees claim the company retaliated when the employees’ hours were reduced and four employees were terminated.

A new manager was transferred to the store along with six other employees. Acuna said injuries increased, with 17 occurring since the petition was signed and four workers advised to get back surgery. The employees claimed the company would not meet to discuss health and safety conditions.

Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said he would not comment on specific claims of injuries and retaliation.

“Punishing union supporters is against the law,” said Wonnacott. “Obviously that would not be the case here.”

Wonnacott said the UFCW and employees who are trying to organize the Fresh & Easy staff did not follow the rules for forming a union set by the National Labor Relations Board. He referred specifically to the rule which requires employees to vote on unionization by a secret ballot which does not show how a person voted.

“All along, since we opened our first door, we have maintained that the choice to join the union is the choice that can only be made by employees,” said Wonnacott. “It’s their democratic right to do so.”

The spokesman added that the company has an open door policy which allows all employees to discuss concerns with management freely.

“From what we hear in stores, all 171 that we have opened, people are very happy with the setup as it is,” Wonnacott said. “If there are concerns people are more than welcome to come and address them.”

image“To me that open door policy is not really in force,” responded Acuna. “I feel like it’s not open to freely say what you want. I feel like whatever you say can be used against you.”

Acuna said employees in the Eagle Rock store chose not to use a secret ballot because they felt the company was maneuvering to make the vote fail. He claimed six employees were brought in from other stores to throw off the pro-union majority.

Carlos Juarez, a 37-year-old Fresh & Easy employee, who also was injured on the job, held up a flier created and distributed by the store to customers. The flyer stated that protesters at a recent rally were not employees of the store.

“And that’s a lie,” said Juarez. “We’re here. This is a decision that we made.”

The two employees said that they just want the store to be a better place to work, but added the pay could also be better. Acuna and Juarez said they make the highest salary for staff members, pulling in $10.90 per hour.

Acuna said the company has been busy opening new stores in Northern California.

“If they have money to do that, then they have money to help their employees,” said Acuna.

Spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said that the company opened 16 stores in 2011. Figures provided by Tesco show the company’s sales in the U.S. were up 38 percent in the third quarter of last year.

As the rally wrapped up, the crowd chanted “Si se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, it can be done.”

Afterward Acuna said his plan is to present to the corporate office a strategy to improve health and safety conditions at the stores.

“We want this company to succeed,” Acuna said. “And the only way they’re going to be able to make that happen is to make their employees happy and theyíre not making that.”

The Food Truck of Ramona Gardens

Jeanette Castro is going to graduate college this spring. Most people from Ramona Gardens don’t.

“They usually end up in jail or, I don’t know, something bad,” said Castro. “It sucks.”

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. There are no restaurants, no farmers markets and no community gardens. The nearest grocery store is a 20-minute drive away, an insurmountable distance to many of the residents who don’t have access to a car. Ramona Gardens is a food desert.

If residents can’t find a way to get to the supermarket, their options are limited. The only store is Nico’s Market, a corner convenience store that provides a limited selection of produce, meat and packaged goods. But everything costs more than it would at a grocery store, and the food is often past its expiration date.

“It’s expensive and it’s not worth it,” said Castro. She stood in front of the produce cooler at Nico’s. The cooler has about a dozen different fruits and vegetables and is only partial stocked. “It’s empty. Like, sometimes if you want to buy tomatoes, they’re no tomatoes. Because they’re all with holes or practically black. So you have no options really.”

Ramona Gardens sits just north of the 10 freeway and east of downtown. Many of the buildings are empty, paint chipping from years of neglect. Few cars pass. It is common to see parents on bikes with small children gripping their back, standing on pegs jutting out of the back tire. Ninety percent of the residents speak English as a second language, and more than 90 percent are Hispanic.

“It’s dangerous here, there’re many gangs, many people drink and use drugs,” said Castro. Crime levels are high. According to some residents, police didn’t even patrol the area until 10 years ago.
Even though Nico’s is overpriced, there is constantly a long line at the checkout counter.

“Sometimes people don’t have options,” said Nora Maya, Castro’s mother. “They don’t have a car, they have kids.”

Beyond Nico’s there is one other option for food. Everyday, a truck parks down the block. The old, dilapidated pickup has crates of produce and snacks, everything priced considerably less than at Nico’s. A group of men sit throughout the day.

Castro says the food is not only cheaper, it’s also better. For example, the truck sells strawberries for a dollar, while at the store they’re $2.99. “And they’re still good,” said Castro. “It’s not rotten like at the corner store. This isn’t even a store and they’ve got better quality. And that’s why people come to him.”

The truck has parked in the same spot every day for the last 22 years. In that time, Jose Rodriguez, who owns and runs the truck, has developed a relationship with the community. It allows him to offer something else Nico’s doesn’t: credit. image

Rodriguez sells food to people, regardless if they have money with them. He keeps his records in a black and white notebook, which is falling apart at the seams. Every page is dedicated to a different family, with long columns that show amounts borrowed and repaid.

“When you need to go to the store, it’s a struggle of money,” said Castro. “Here, you can get what you need without the money, which is a good thing, and pay him later.”

There is no specific credit limit, but people don’t need to settle their accounts in order to get more food. Some pages show a balance that steadily climbs up, owing the truck more and more, but Rodriguez doesn’t cut them off.

“If we can help someone and still run our business, we will,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez and his son get their produce every morning from the LA Market Warehouse downtown. He says he is able to charge so little because he doesn’t need to pay for rent, only a vending permit. In a survey conducted by the city about mobile vendors, Rodriguez says his truck was rated the cheapest and he got the highest grade in quality.

In 22 years of operation, Rodriguez says there hasn’t been another option for people to buy food. Long ago, there was a second market next to Nico’s, but Nico’s put them out of business by charging less. When the second market went under, Nico’s prices skyrocketed. “Between over here [at the truck] and over there [at the market], everyone would prefer to go over here,” said Castro.

Related Stories:

Fast food ban changes food landscape in South L.A.

Neighborhood garden brings fresh produce to South L.A.

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

Location makes a difference in appearance and items found in grocery stores

By: Daniel Estevao


image There are two entrances at Ralphs that are very close to each other. One faces Vermont Avenue while the other faces Adams Boulevard. Both entrances have automatic sliding doors that open into the large, colorful, and brightly lit produce section. This picture shows the produce section with its carefully organized retail displays. But the smell of flowers and fruits also pervades this space. Here, you can see a Tulip stand with bouquet bags so that you can arrange flowers yourself. It seems a little strange to do this type of job yourself, but looking around the store and seeing consumers shopping for everything themselves with not so much as a greeting (except sometimes by the security guard who guards the two entrances/exits), a self-service floral kiosk fits right in. The presence of a floral shop and do-it-yourself bouquets adds to the “naturalness” of this section; it almost seems magical. Although there are junk foods dispersed throughout this section, Ralph’s does a pretty good job at separating junk foods from healthy foods. The produce section is Ralph’s most colorful, open, and attractive space in the store…no wonder they force shoppers to enter into this area.

image Ralphs had Radicchios for sale at $3.99 per pound. I took a picture because I thought they might be part of the Brassicaceae family; radishes belong in that same family. However, Radicchios are part of the chicory family, which are a slightly bitter-tasting leafy vegetable. Radishes and Radicchios have a similar color, though. Radicchios, at $3.99 per pound, were only found at Ralphs. The radishes there were located right next to the Radicchios. They were looking quite good. There were plastic bags hanging above the vegetables and scales for you to weigh them. At 99 cents a pound, they are a bargain.


image As you can see, the produce section is right next to the chips and soda; the chips are advertised $2 per big bag and the soda is 79 cents. There was a small little stand of flowers, but Superior obviously has less concern for their merchandise image than Ralphs. Never mind maintaining a “natural” atmosphere in their produce section. Superior’s floors were dirty, the fruits and vegetables were mostly kept in their original boxes/crates and the overall quality of the food seemed below average. The residents that go to Superior for their groceries are coerced into buying highly processed junk food for their families, rather than healthy fruits and vegetables. Superior has much better prices for highly saturated foods than Ralphs, but they had similar or worse prices in their produce section. In the case of radishes, Superior did not advertise price by the pound but by the quantity. As we can see below, you can get two radishes for $1–slightly more money than you would spend at Ralphs, because two radishes weigh slightly less than one pound.

image The radishes at Superior looked much dryer and beaten than the ones at Ralphs. I assume that, at Ralphs, there are spritzer machines that give its produce a shiny, almost waxy glow to them. At Superior, however, the fruits/vegetables seemed quite dirty…perhaps the dirt from the fruits/vegetables is what makes the floor so dirty. Although Ralphs pays very careful attention to its smell, lighting and spritzer machines to maintain a “natural” atmosphere, what could be more natural than dirt? It is very strange to see how our sense of “natural” has turned into its exact opposite: artificial. Maybe its the contrived atmosphere of the grocery store spawned from the artificiality of the tastes and smells in our food, or is it the other way around?

At Ralphs, there were no boxes except for the ones that were currently being unpacked. At Superior, empty boxes were lying around; one was labeled “Radish King.” I assume that King Radish provides Superior grocery stores with their radishes. I did not do any background check on that company.

I also noticed the discrepancy in prices (in relation to calories) between junk foods and healthy foods. Sugary cereals, salty chips and cheap soda tempt shoppers away from fruits and closer to the highly processed foods that blanket the store. Superior caters to a lower socio-economic population, hence the difference in their produce sections. The differences are quite revealing. And, from what I’ve been told, Ralphs used to be very similar to Superior before a University of Southern California student’s father spent a lot of money on fixing it up so he could feel his daughter was safe and eating healthy while at the school. I don’t know if that’s true, but I would not be surprised. Although you do see some USC students shopping in Superior, I saw mostly Hispanic mothers with their children. But at Ralph’s, I saw mostly USC students. For those looking for a price comparison, though, Superior definitely beats Ralphs at most things, especially the highly processed junk food, like soda and chips.


One student observed two grocery stores on another side of town…

By: Arman Hamamah

I visited two stores, roughly four miles away from each other. They are in opposite directions of where I live: Glendale. I intended to acquire some chard, which is a type of leafy vegetable.image

First stop: Jons. After a careful search, there was no chard. I made sure to look through all of the products listed to see if they carried chard and perhaps just didn’t have any for the day. There was no chard listed. When I asked “the produce guy,” he told me he didn’t know what chard was and that it sounded “pretty exotic to me.” That seemed odd because they had a decent assortment of greens: broccoli, spinach, different types of lettuce. Andrew*, “the produce guy,” asked his coworker if she knew anything about chard, and she said they didn’t carry it there.

Next stop: Ralphs on Central and Stocker avenues. Though the distance between Ralphs and Jons is only four miles, the neighborhoods are quite different. Around Ralphs, which is up near the hilly parts of the city, there are nice homes and not many apartments. The streets are clean, and there is a bank across the block. Jons, on the other hand, is on the busy street of Glenoaks Boulevard next to a Starbucks where people come in and out quickly while on their way to work. Across the street and continuing down the block from Jons (toward Glendale) are an array of fast-food joints including Burger King, Carls Jr., Popeyes, and KFC. There’s even a fast-paced Kabob restaurant. A block the in the other direction (toward Burbank) are McDonalds and Taco Bell. The Jons is lower down, near the freeway. The immediate surroundings include a pharmacy, many apartment buildings and train tracks.

Ralphs is located in a mellow area, with an older, retired crowd, while Jons is situated in a more fast-paced, pick-up-some-food-on-the-way-to-work (or home) area. Naturally, grocery stores would adapt to its customers.

At Ralphs, the chards had front row seats. Red and green swiss chards were right next to each other, in between the mustard and collard greens. With vibrant reds and greens, I didn’t want to leave. Everything was fresh. I asked the Ralphs produce manager to give me a rough estimate for how often the greens are replenished. He told me it depended on the season, but he said at least five times a week and often every day. The chard was at $1.99 each.

Some additional notes:

The produce section at Ralphs was much more comfortable. There is a large area to walk through and a large area of products to choose from. Colors were more vibrant and looked new. The walls were painted the same off-white color as Jons, where the produce section was the dullest. In terms of how much space the produce section got in relation to the whole store, Ralps gave the strong impression that produce was closer to the top of their priority list. On the other hand, at Jons, many more boxes and cans lined the shelves.


*Names have been changed to protect sources.

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

Los Angeles grocery stores receive low grades

Listen to the audio story:


Los Angeles grocery chains did not make the grade. That is what community members said as they addressed the issue of food deserts in front of a Vons in West Los Angeles.

“Food desert communities are not being served well by the entire grocery community,” said Elliot Petty, director of the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores.

The alliance gave grades to the major grocery chains after it evaluated the food, job quality and, most importantly, the grocery stores’ presence in food deserts. The grades ranged from a B- for Food 4 Less to a D+ for Smart & Final.

Please feel free to access the report at

The grocery stores in the report did not comment.

Lack of fresh food and grocery stores concerns many in South Los Angeles

Food is an important aspect of our individual and social lives. It is the fabric of our existence. As James Beard, a chef and food writer, once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

It is also a big business.

As food trucks spread from one city to another, they are another example of new forms of food access. Our culture’s obsession with food has also expanded to food blogs. From Indian to vegan to organic, it is all there. There is even a television channel dedicated to cooking and gourmet eating.

But in South Los Angeles, this obsession with food is different. Instead, residents there struggle with the purchase of fresh food. There are fewer grocery stores in South Los Angeles than there are in neighboring cities, and the quality of food is of lesser value than those nearby communities.

Mary Lee, a member of the health team at PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization, talks about the aesthetics of grocery stores and the quality of food in South Los Angeles:

Nationwide Issue

For years, major supermarket chains have been criticized for leaving lower income communities. As a result, many of these communities, including Detroit, Memphis and South Los Angeles, lack healthier food options beyond the ever-present corner stores and fast food chains.

“The lack of grocery stores in South Los Angeles specifically has been documented by multiple people, multiple researchers, so it’s an established fact that this is a nationwide issue,” said LaVonna Lewis, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. “They call them food deserts, and what has been demonstrated is that there’s a lack of grocery stores nationally in predominantly African American communities.”

In South Los Angeles, the 1992 Los Angeles riots marked a turning point, said Dave Heylen, the vice president of communications at the California Grocers Association, a statewide trade organization that represents the food industry.

“The civil unrest resulted in burned-down stores, so operators didn’t return to the area,” Heylen said. “The cost to rebuild was too high.”

Food Deserts

Limited access to supermarkets creates a food desert that leads to significant barriers in healthful eating. A food desert generally refers to an area where the consumer’s ability to purchase healthy food is difficult because there are few grocery stores around or the quality of food is poor.

“A food desert can also occur at a place where you buy fresh fruit at a convenience store, which is not known for selling that sort of food, so the store marks the price up on that particular product,” Lee said. “It’s a cruel paradox because people in low-income communities like South Los Angeles are usually the ones who rely on a store in a place where it’s probably impossible to find competition or more than one grocery store.”

Healthy food is also inaccessible when it is physically difficult to get to a store. For communities that rely on public transportation, a trip to a quality grocery store can be onerous if the store is not near a transit corridor.

“It becomes a factor that is beyond income,” Lee said.

Systemic problems continue as well. Lee compared food deserts to racial redlining, where banks and other corporate entities once drew a red line around neighborhoods where people of color lived.

“The banks either did not offer services at all, or they might sell their services at a higher price with less variety,” Lee said. “The same thing occurred with grocery stores. Some have left neighborhoods as they have become populated by one particular racial group. As whites moved further west, grocery stores closed down, and more liquor stores opened up in the area.”

According to a study released by Community Health Councils, a community-based health advocacy organization, South Los Angeles is home to about 1 million people. The area’s 60 full-service grocery stores each serve about 22,156 residents in contrast to the 57 stores in West Los Angeles that average only 11,150 residents.

Lee talks about the number of South Los Angeles residents and why that amount makes the area’s food desert different from others:

South Los Angeles also differs from other food deserts because of its high number of children and seniors, people Lee referred to as “vulnerable residents.”

There are a large number of people in South Los Angeles, but Lee said there are fewer chain grocery stores than there were 20 to 30 years ago.

“That begs for some analysis,” Lee added.

This Project

The idea for this months-long project stemmed from a community workshop conducted by Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report. John Harriel and Maria Isabel Rutledge, both South Los Angeles residents, raised the issue.

The first phase of this ongoing project started with six visits to the Ralphs on Manchester and Western avenues in South Los Angeles. The visits occurred over a three-month period, with Harriel in attendance on three of those visits. During four of the six outings, a number of outdated products remained on the store’s shelves.

See some outdated products:

Harriel said there is a lot of outdated merchandise at some of the grocery stores he goes to in South Los Angeles.

“I want to know why that is,” Harriel added. “I want to know what I can do about it, and I want to know if there are health consequences.”

Lewis talks about health consequences:

Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report looked at other Ralphs locations for the second part of this ongoing project. Shoppers can purchase The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or eat lunch inside the Torrance-based Ralphs, located on Sepulveda Boulevard. The same can be said about the Santa Monica site, located on Cloverfield Boulevard, and the downtown Los Angeles site, located on 9th Street. The Ralphs in Westwood, located on Weyburn Avenue, is clean and spacious. The store validates parking, and there is new hardwood flooring treatment.

But at the Ralphs on Manchester and Western avenues, customers do not get the option to sit inside the grocery store. There is a small Coffee Bean counter, rather than a full-service stand, and customers can only choose from a couple of items. There is a large section where shoppers can buy outdated products with reduced pricing.

Product Dating

“Sell by” and “use by” are common phrases shoppers might find on grocery store products. According to a report issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, these dates are generally called “open dating.” That means the date, as opposed to a code, stamped on a product’s package helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It also helps the purchaser know when the product is at its best quality.

“In most cases, dates on products refer to peak freshness,” Heylen said. “The food is still safe. It may not taste as good. That is why you see the Manager’s Special stickers and reduced pricing.”

The report said, except for infant formula and some baby food, federal regulations do not require product dating. But if a date is shown, the day, month and year must be available. Next to that date must be a “sell by” or “use by” phrase.

Types of Dating

According to the report, the term “sell by” generally tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Purchasers should buy the product before the date expires.

The phrase “best if used by or before” refers to the best flavor or quality of that particular product. It is not a purchase or safety date.

A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while it is at its peak quality. The manufacturer of the product usually determines this date.

“Closed or coded dates” are usually numbers the manufacturer uses.


It is understood that grocery stores are run by economics. They are businesses that need to make money. If people do not buy certain products, they are taken off of the shelves.

“It is strictly supply and demand, and the store provides consumers what they want,” Heylen said. “Most grocery stores will offer the standards of produce, fresh meat, dried goods and beverages, but the way the stores adjust or twek that deals with what products people actually buy.”

That is a common reason why some grocery stores say they do not sell certain products, including various organic and sugar-free foods. But Lewis believes that is an excuse.

“We have demonstrated that people will leave the community if they want to buy things they need,” Lewis said. “If I’m a diabetic, and I need sugar-free products, we have been able to prove that people will leave to get those products.”

Where there are grocery stores in South Los Angeles, some believe they contain products of lesser quality than those in a well-off area.

“You might find a Ralphs in a more affluent or predominately white area that will have better variety, better quality and lower prices,” Lee said. “But in a low-income neighborhood with people of color, there will be limited variety, poorer quality and higher prices.”

But Heylen said the type of community does not affect how many grocery stores actually exist in the area. Instead, retailers often face challenges, including the lack of available land and a burdensome approval process.

“There are also other variables involved,” Heylen said. “It depends when one particular grocery store opened. At that time, maybe people built smaller stores. You cannot look at one store and say, ‘Look at this one,’ and then look at another store from the same chain and say, ‘Look at that one.’ You have to make sure you compare apples to apples.”


Efforts to improve health and eliminate disparities in South Los Angeles mirror those that occur in other food deserts around the country.

Lee talks about a grocery store’s herd mentality:

Philadelphia, PA created a collaborative effort between fiscal investors and community-based groups. The city developed an initiative called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provides loans and grants to help stores open. The money also helps existing stores upgrade. The initiative has been around for five or six years, and it has resulted in nearly 100 store openings, Lee said.

“California is also in the throws of getting a healthy food financing initiative,” Lee added. “That one would be the result of now-pending legislation. The person who introduced it is from the South Los Angeles area, and he has been aware of how difficult it has been to address this issue of attracting new stores and upgrading existing stores. We’re hopeful that the dollars that might come out of our state budget will incentivize new store development.”

But the ability to eat healthily still depends on other food resources available in the community.

Obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are other problems people in South Los Angeles, and the rest of the nation, face.

Lewis talks about obesity:

The South Los Angeles area experiences disproportionately high rates of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases compared with West Los Angeles. According to a Community Health Councils study, about 35 percent of adults are obese in South Los Angeles, while only 10 percent of adults experience obesity in nearby West Los Angeles.

Diet-related chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are also more prevalent in the area. Lee said the abundance of fast food restaurants contributes to these conditions.

“The fast food growth absolutely tracked the population growth,” Lee added. “They create a real quandary for the consumer. These places tend to sell cheap and convenient food. You leave people with the option of taking a long bus ride to the grocery store or walking a short distance by foot.”

Heylen said food deserts have been an issue for decades, but he believes changes have slowly been made.

“You see a movement of more and more companies that are cognizant of their responsibilities for good, healthy food,” Heylen added. “The shift is happening. It will not happen overnight, but it is moving in that direction, and we will do what we can to bring more grocery stores to South Los Angeles.”

Grocery Stores

United Kingdom-based Tesco recently opened its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in South Los Angeles. The store opening continues a broader movement to bring development to that neighborhood.

But an online search showed no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in the South Los Angeles community. The closest Trader Joe’s is in Westchester, some miles away. On the Whole Foods website, a pull-down menu reveals many locations. Compton, Inglewood, Watts and other South Los Angeles cities do not fall among the areas listed.

See a map of grocery stores in South Los Angeles:

View Grocery Stores in South Los Angeles in a larger map


If you have any questions, or if you want to contact health organizations, please visit the following websites:

Community Health Councils

Healthy Eating Active Communities

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health