Creating Oases in Food Deserts with Market Makeovers

In spite of all the consternation surrounding them, food deserts remain a problem in Los Angeles -- according to one recent analysis, only 36% of Angelenos live within five minutes' walk of a grocery store. That's somewhat of a high bar to set, admittedly, but as this map indicates, L.A.'s legitimate food deserts are plentiful and vast. Unsurprisingly, grocery store chains that have avoided these locations for years tend to continue avoiding them, exacerbating the problem.

To help address the issue, the LA Food Policy Council developed a different approach: "market makeovers." As Clare Fox, director of policy and innovation for LAFPC, explains, "It makes sense to focus on the existing food landscape in food desert neighborhoods. Market makeovers are a way to invest in small businesses that have been in the community for a long time and just need additional resources to offer healthier items."


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On March 29, one such market, South L.A.'s Alba Snacks and Services, celebrated its grand re-opening after having undergone a makeover with the help of LAFPC. Formerly known as $1 Warehouse, its proprietor is local small business owner Nelson Garcia, who wanted to stock healthier options for the middle- and high school students who frequent his store. "We'd started a conversation with Nelson a few years ago," Fox says. "He has swarms of teenagers in the store every afternoon, and as a father himself, he doesn't want to see kids eating junk. He wanted to provide healthier food, but he wasn't sure where to start."

Garcia and LAFPC decided to zero in on snacks as a core offering, stocking "snackable produce" like tangerines, apples, bananas, and strawberries as well as yogurt, trail mix, granola bars, and protein bars for student athletes. They also redesigned the store to put the healthy options right up front. "You can still find Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but they've been moved to the back," Fox says. "We're trying to encourage young people to re-pattern what they go to first."

LAFPC's market makeovers are aimed at creating sustainable, long-term change in food desert neighborhoods. "If a market introduces produce but it doesn't become core to what they do, they're less inclined to keep it going," Fox notes. "The change needs to be more substantial. Nelson's store is our first example of that more robust transformation."

For that reason, LAFPC connected Garcia with a food retail consultant to talk through business planning, marketing, branding, product display and more. "It's not just about the food," Fox says. "It's the whole experience. You walk in and you think, 'This place is beautiful.' The students love being there -- they're really excited about it."

LAFPC offers ongoing support for corner-store retailers seeking to incorporate healthier products through its Healthy Neighborhood Markets Network, which offers three annual training events -- one in Korean, one in Spanish and one multi-lingual summer conference. "It's a platform for business development that helps them become healthy in a sustainable way," Fox says. The next Korean-language training is set for May 2 at LA Trade Technical College, and the summer Healthy Food, Healthy Business conference will be held in the same location on June 27.

Does the market makeover model work in the long run? UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health is asking that very question with a multi-year study of four "corner store conversions" in Boyle Heights and East L.A. Early results have been promising, Fox says: "They're about halfway through the study now, and the impacts so far are pretty substantive. They're able to show how peoples' eating habits are changing over time."

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