In late June, Ralphs grocery store closed its branch on Western Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the second such branch located in South L.A. to close over the past few months. While this kind of news would go generally unnoticed and unreported around town, what made this particular instance different is that the grocery chain was literally the only way for many of South L.A.'s residents to easily get fresh fruits and vegetables. The dual closings made the area's food desert that much more barren.
But South L.A. is not a community that's just going to sit back and watch. Which is why last month, amidst protests directed towards Ralphs, a surprising thing sprouted up in a liquor store parking lot at Western Avenue and 39th Street in South L.A.: A rare-in-the-area farmers' market.
The market takes over every Friday afternoon from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. As the market goes into its third month, I spoke with Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and CEO of Community Coalition -- one of the groups responsible for the creation of the market -- about the project and the ongoing struggle to solve the area's food desert crisis.
What were some of the challenges of getting a farmers' market in South L.A.?
Marqueece Harris-Dawson: Well, for a lot of the farmers' markets, it's like, if I have to choose between being in South L.A. and being in Torrence, I'm going to choose Torrence. It's choosing communities that are wealthier, or perceived as wealthier. And a lot of the farmers want to go to farmers' markets that are already established. So, getting critical mass at a farmers' market was something that a lot of groups and individuals got stuck on in the past.
But Community Services Unlimited really offered a good solution, because they grow a lot locally at Exposition Park, and they work with local farmers. So, they're the sole provider now. As business builds, we'll add more providers. But instead of starting out with a high number of vendors who may or may not get enough support to sustain involvement, we're trying to grow in a way that's sustainable to the community.
How are legislators helping or hindering the process?
Marqueece: One of the things we're proud of is that nobody here's waiting on the government, banks, big business, grocers, or even corporate farmers to do anything. We're taking what we have and doing the best we can with it, and letting that be the foundation. Should elected officials want to get involved, or big banks, or big grocers, or big farmers, they'll be getting involved in something that's already established and controlled by community forces, rather than being the initiators of it.
What's been the response so far?
Marqueece: It's been great. On occasion, the food stands actually sold out. They literally ran out of product. In any business, that's a good outcome. The other thing we really appreciate is the more anecdotal stuff, where parents tell us, you know, my kids don't eat vegetables unless they're processed. But now because there's this market right here in the community, kids ride their bikes up and spend their fifty cents on a box of berries or plums or whatever. It just demonstrates what we believed all along, and that's if kids have access to healthier foods, they'll eat healthier foods. That's been, for us, this little victory. Kids who would go into a liquor store right across the way and buy a bag of chips are now stopping at a stand and buying fruits and vegetables instead.
What is the next step of the process?
Marqueece: We're in L.A., but winter could be a challenge. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, you just never know how the weather's going to be. It's really been a walking and bike-riding and skateboarding kind of thing so far. So the question is how will people feel about that when it's not 80 degrees with a light westerly breeze. I think that's going to be the first of the challenges, how do we sustain through winter? The other dynamic will be making sure we have enough space for all of the people who want to come and participate.
I know you said you're growing this from the inside-out, but are you going after any vendors?
Marqueece: No. We want to create a business where the vendors are coming to us. We want to change the relationship. Because what's happened in South L.A. is that a lot of people try to go out and convince vendors, and when vendors do do it it's almost like they're doing you a favor, which is not the best kind of relationship between vendors and customers. You want more of a relationship where it's like we're doing each other a favor. So that's why we want to build the audience first. Then, because it's community-driven, the community can decide who it wants and doesn't want.
Are there other ways you're trying to help get rid of the food desert in South L.A. beyond the farmers' market?
Marqueece: We're working like dogs with the grocery chains. One, to make sure that the grocery stores that are here don't leave, because we hear rumors that they're leaving all the time. And then, we're trying to talk to other grocers to get them to see the opportunities here in South L.A.
Has there been any movement in one direction or the other?
Not really. I think what's been accomplished is that there's widespread acceptance of the idea that there is a food desert. And there's widespread acceptance of the idea that there are opportunities in South L.A. Now, it's just the hard slog of what opportunities, what grocer, what location. In L.A., that kind of thing is rife with land mines and a long, circuitous path.
Do you see the bigger issue in regards to the creation of the food desert being the lack of groceries coming in, or the education of the community to sustain the stores if they do?
Marqueece: I think the bigger issue is availability. A good amount of South L.A. already leaves South L.A. to shop for this reason, so presumably if those products were available in our own community, a portion of those people would buy them close to home rather than driving. Secondly, we know that a lot of people in South L.A. are public-transit-dependent, so they're going to buy what's in stores because they don't have any other choices. Bringing in another store would make a big difference.
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