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