Does your neighborhood determine the quality of your produce?

By Meryl Hawk

imageSouth LA resident Donna Washington is one of many disappointed by the lack of quality produce available in her community.

Donna Washington stepped through the sliding doors of a Ralphs supermarket in Inglewood and strode over to the produce section. She looked down with dismay onto a table filled with dozens of strawberries. Flies hovered over the fruit. She picked up a carton and squinted her eyes. Her nose curled.

“These are so bruised they aren’t even red anymore,” she says. “I can’t feed this to my family.”

Washington headed over to a bin of green beans. She picked one up and broke it in half.

“It’s slimy inside,” she says. “It has brown streaks on it too.”

“I feel like I get someone’s leftover produce,” she says. Often, “the produce looks spoiled or like someone dropped it on the ground a few times.”

Washington and many others complain that South L.A. and other nearby communities are shortchanged when it comes to fresh produce. Studies show there are fewer grocery stores and healthy food options, such as low sugar cereal and fat free salad dressing, in poorer areas of the county.

A 2008 study by the Community Health Council, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found there was a grocery store for every 6,000 residents in South and East L.A. compared to one for every 3,800 residents in West L.A. – a 58% difference. The council also found that stores in poorer areas offered fewer healthy choices, like low fat snacks and lean meats.

The Community Health Council’s report states “obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are areas of serious concern” and “these dangerous health trends” could be reversed by “well-crafted food policies.”

The need for better food is critical in poor areas, which often have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Beryl Jackson, 43, who lives in South L.A. but works in Westwood, says she has seen an obvious difference in quality between the produce she can find in her neighborhood and those in grocery stores near her work.

“Residents from areas like South L.A. have to go to the stores in nicer neighborhoods to get fruit that isn’t bruised,” she says. “In the store next to my home they peel the brown leaves off of the lettuce to keep it looking fresh.”

Jessie Barber, 79, agrees that more affluent neighborhoods have higher quality stores than South L.A.

“I think we get whatever is on closeout,” she says. “Some of my friends go to the stores in West L.A. because they have better quality and variety. They don’t even shop in the area.”

Despite such sentiments, grocery store representatives insist that claims of inequality in food available in poorer communities are overblown.

imageProduce from a high-quality Ralphs.

Dave Heylen, the Vice President of Communications at the California Grocers Association, an organization that represents grocery suppliers and employees, insists that residents in underserved communities do have access to healthy food.

“There are farmer’s markets in almost every neighborhood in Los Angeles at some point during the week,” he says. “There is not a lack of access to healthy food in low-income areas.”

Gemma Gallegos, a sales manager at a Ralphs in Downtown L.A., says people in lower-income neighborhoods “probably don’t buy healthier options because they are pricier and don’t taste as good as other foods.”

“There is more of a concern about how far a dollar will stretch than health in those areas,” she says.

David Sanchez, a front-end supervisor at a Vons in Hollywood, says some stores are mindful of the surrounding communities’ health.

“Every Friday we offer meal deals, which consists of a piece of bread, chicken and two sides for $9.99,” he says. “Everyone likes them. It’s a healthy alternative to fast food.”

The Café at the Hollywood Vons offers sides like potato wedges and clam chowder. The bread is white and there are no vegetable or fruit sides.

Wendy Jackson, a general manager at Washington’s local Ralphs, says the number of food choices offered at a grocery store, is based on what people in the community buy most often.

“Some Ralphs have diabetic and gluten-free options,” she says. “We don’t because of where we’re located.

Jackson said Inglewood residents do not purchase gluten-free and diabetic items because they have less money to spend on specialty foods.

A spokesman for Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and other grocery stores, refused to comment on why low-income areas have fewer stores and healthy choices.

LaVonna Lewis, a health policy expert at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, says the California Grocers Association has made commitments to transform some markets in underserved communities and bring in more fruits and vegetables.

She also notes that the city in 2008 adopted a moratorium on fast food.

However, Lewis says the measures are not enough to improve the amount of healthy offerings because grocery store chains do not have incentives to build more stores in low-income communities. “The vendors are saying, ‘since people from the lower-income areas come to our stores in the higher-income areas, then why should we build in their communities?’”

The Community Health Council has recommended several steps to bring in more grocery stores: give landowners incentives to use their property to build grocery stores; strengthen the city’s ability to attract more chain markets with a strong marketing strategy; and educate policy makers and stakeholders on the link between public health and the types of food available in a community.

For Washington, the type of food she eats determines whether or not she can control her diabetes and lower her cholesterol. Washington, 52, a county welfare worker, lives with a husband recovering from lymphoma, a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. She is also taking care of her 78-year-old mother, who has dementia and blood clots in her legs.

“The stores next to my house don’t have fresh produce,” Washington complains. “They don’t have variety either.”

Washington’s local Ralphs had about a third of the diabetic options available at the Ralphs in Beverly Hills. Her store only carried sugar free jelly. The Beverly Hills location sold low sugar cookies, cereal and jelly, and had gluten-free options. Washington’s store did not.

Washington likes to juice vegetables for the family. “I’m trying to change the way we eat,” she says.

“It upsets me when I can’t buy fruit because it’s rotting,” Washington says. “What really gets me is the romaine lettuce. Almost every time I try to buy some, it’s brown and wilted.”

On a recent evening, Washington went to a Ralphs in Beverly Hills to see if the produce was any better than her local store’s.

She picked up a container of ruby red tomatoes and held them up to her nose. Her eyes closed and a smile spread across her face. Then she picked up a bundle of romaine lettuce and studied it as she held it in her hands.

The produce section at the Ralphs in Beverly Hills, she says, “smelled like a garden.”

Between the prices of apples, bananas and pineapple, apples are the only item that cost more at the Beverly Hills Ralphs.

“The lettuce is crisp and bright green and the tomatoes aren’t rotting! Everything is so fresh here,” Washington says. “How come my produce section doesn’t look like this?

Opinion: Ralph’s workers aren’t the only ones getting played

By Jasmyne A. Cannick

I don’t work at a grocery store. I don’t even shop at the stores in question anymore. And even though I might sympathize with the worker’s position, I can’t honestly say I’m in support of them going on strike. But none this would stop me from picking up a sign and joining the workers on the picket line–and if in fact there is a strike, I probably will.

Ralph’s on Vermont and 120th St.

Crenshaw and Coliseum, Manchester and Western, Slauson and Crenshaw, Compton and Alameda, and Vermont and 120th streets are just a few of Ralph’s South Los Angeles locations in dire need of a makeover and have been ever since they were known as The Boys, Alpha Beta, and ABC markets.

When I think about it, the only thing that has changed since those stores were taken over by Ralph’s in the early 1990’s, are the increase in prices and the sign on the outside of the building.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Ralph’s was trying to pass off these stores as “Historic Cultural Monuments” because they can only be found in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

Ralph’s new 50,000 sq ft store downtown.

Unlike their 3rd St. and La Brea and Fountain and La Brea stores on the west side of Los Angeles, which cater to a lighter shade of customers, or their Vermont and Adams store that bends over backwards to attract USC students, South Los Angeles patrons have to put up with dimly lit stores that continue to hide the true appearance of the produce, fruit, and poultry and fish being sold. Add to that, narrow aisles, old shopping carts, small parking lots and an even smaller selection of products to choose from.

And don’t even get me started on their newly built 50,000 square-foot downtown Los Angeles location that caters to L.A.’s loft dwellers, where grocery shopping takes on whole new meaning.

Ralph’s Fresh Fare, as it’s being called, offers expanded grocery, liquor, fresh and organic produce, and floral departments, a fully staffed meat department, and a wine cellar—a wine cellar! Oh and did I mention the sushi, soup, and salad bar?

Ralph’s Fresh Fare in downtown L.A.

Look—we want sushi in the hood. We want a cheese selection that doesn’t begin and end with cheddar and mozzarella. How about bringing some of that fresh and organic produce to a community of overweight and obese people where french fries are often considered a vegetable?

Before Ralph’s builds another store in Los Angeles, they need to take care of unfinished business in South Los Angeles. Whether it’s cash, credit, or E.B.T., our money and patronage contributes to their profits and bottom line just as much as the folks on the west side or in downtown Los Angeles. Black and Latino mothers and grandmothers deserve to have the same shopping experience offered to white soccer moms on the west side. And our children deserve the benefits of clean and modern grocery stores with a wide variety of products to choose from—we eat more than just Top Ramen and fried chicken.

Ralph’s may be getting over on their employees when it comes to concessions regarding health care benefits, but they’ve been playing their South Los Angeles customers for idiots for far longer.

Ralph’s may not be sweating the decision of their workers to call a strike, but they should be trembling in their boots if their South Los Angeles customers follow suit and join them on the picket line. And if you ask me, they should.

Photos courtesy of Jasmyne A. Cannick.image

A former Ralph’s turned Fresh & Easy customer, Jasmyne A. Cannick writes about the intersection of race, sex, politics, and pop culture from an unapologetically Black point of view. Online at,, and

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.