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Will Downtown L.A. Get Its 'Holy Grail' of Grocery Stores?

The imminent opening of Walmart in the fringes of Chinatown has not been without controversy. Despite the blessing of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which has cited the addition of permanent jobs as one of a new Walmart's benefits, some aren't convinced. "If Walmart opens, a lot of small stores will close," says Chinatown herbal shop owner Ocean Li in the article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. In the same article, writer Lisa See argues the big box behemoth will have a negative impact on the historic character of the neighborhood.

The store will occupy a space that has been vacant for years, in an area that is already the site of many generic chains. It will share the building with a Subway, sits right across from a Burger King, and is two blocks from a large CVS. But chain stores do not always equal junk food: if other Walmart Neighborhood Markets are any indication, it will carry organic produce.

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Meanwhile, the L.A. Downtown News reports that some downtown residents want more (or better) grocery options. Currently there is a Ralphs Fresh Fare at Ninth and Flower Street; Smart & Final will open at Ninth and Figueroa; and the new Target at Seventh and Figueroa will carry groceries. That's three grocery store options within a few blocks.

But residents still wish for more -- for the "Holy Grail" of grocery stores. According to Hal Bastian from the Downtown Central Business Improvement District, that would be Trader Joe's. The DCBID conducted a demographics survey that found that the 89 percent of downtown residents polled cited Trader Joe's as the most requested grocer to locate in downtown. Many certain already shop there: 74 percent already drive to Trader Joe's, the nearest of which is in Silver Lake, more than 5 miles away. Other residents wish for the high-end grocer Whole Foods -- the article quotes downtown resident and lobbyist Veronica Perez: "I think Ralphs is great, but as a foodie who likes organic and healthy options, there are many products I use that I can only get at Whole Foods."

In Little Tokyo at the northeast end of downtown, there are three grocery store options: Woori, a full service Korean market; Marukai, a medium sized Japanese market, and Nijiya, a small market inside the Japanese Village Plaza that sells organic products, many produced in-house at their own local farms.

Add to that the produce and meat stalls at Grand Central Market and small boutique stores like Two Bits Market, and there's a good variety of grocery options within downtown's borders.

Downtown L.A. is far from being a food desert. But access to good food is an important topic that's relevant not just to downtown, but to all of Los Angeles and the rest of the country.

What do you look for in a grocery store? How far do you travel to buy groceries? Let us know in the comments.

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Top: Ai Hoa Supermarket in Chinatown by A Culinary (Photo) Journal, used under a Creative Commons license.

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