Nelson Garcia owns a small corner market on Vermont Avenue and 60th Street in South Los Angeles that mostly stocked chips and other unhealthy junk food on his shelves. All of that changed in April, when Nelson re-opened his market as a healthy food hub that now offers healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables to a community that has limited options to buy fresh produce.
Nelson decided to make the investment to convert his business and offer better resources to his community after a year-long program with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), in which storeowners receive technical assistance to become healthy food vendors. In addition to learning about how to market his new products and design his store to highlight healthy produce, he also got a new coat of bright blue paint and a sign with his new store name: Alba Snacks & Services.
The grand re-opening marked a new chapter for Nelson's business and for the South Los Angeles community he serves. Here are the five reasons that we should celebrate Nelson's commitment to healthy food and help encourage other corner stores to follow his lead:
1. Increased Access to Healthy Food
Nelson's store conversion project is a part of a larger effort to expand access to healthy food in South Los Angeles, where many neighborhoods face diminished healthy food options. National studies have connected access to grocery stores and other healthy food retail with reduced numbers of chronic disease like diabetes. In South Los Angeles, some neighborhoods have less than one grocery store per 10,000 residents, according to the Health Atlas for the City of Los Angeles. South Los Angeles also struggles with a rate of 11 percent adult diabetes, compared to only 6 percent in West Los Angeles. By offering more fruits and healthy snacking products, Nelson is part of a movement to create equitable access to healthy food in an effort to improve the health of his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
2. Support Small Business Leadership for Health
South Los Angeles is home to three times as many small corner neighborhood markets like Nelson Garcia's, as compared to West Los Angeles. Usually stocked with high-caloric, low-nutrient food items, small food stores are nevertheless a place where many residents in under-served neighborhoods buy food, especially young people, the elderly, and transit dependent. That's why the LAFPC focuses on catalyzing a resource network specifically for existing small food retailers, called the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network (HNMN). Through HNMN we offer free ongoing business and leadership development training, and support to small stores who desire to become healthy food retailers. We know that South Los Angeles and other L.A. neighborhoods considered "food deserts" or "food swamps" are home to many innovative and risk-taking entrepreneurs, like Nelson. With additional resources, tools, and support, neighborhood markets can be a part of bringing improved food options and health services to their communities. By supporting Nelson's growth with his new healthy food business, we can support the growth of a community-responsive business leader in South Los Angeles who cares about the health of his community.
3. Connect with Good Food Neighbors
But Nelson cannot do it alone. It "takes a village" of activated stakeholders committed to one another's mutual success to shore up sustainable and healthy community change. For his "market makeover" project, Nelson has quite a team behind him: the principal, teachers, and student leaders from nearby Hawkins High School; a brand strategist, architect, and graphic designer affiliated with food retail firm Shook Kelley; community development practitioners from Leadership for Urban Renewal Network; food policy friends at the LAFPC; nearly 200 backers through an online crowd-sourced Kiva Zip loan, and the support of local Councilmember Curren Price. Perhaps most critical for the long-term success of Nelson's efforts is that several neighborhood institutions have committed to regularly buy healthy food from Alba Snacks & Services. Nearby Hawkins High School, St. John's Well Child and Family Center, Southern California Library and Voice Neighborhood Council have become "Good Food Neighbors" to Alba Market and will promote the new healthy food products now available to their students, patients and constituents. Hopefully, this mutual commitment between Nelson and his local neighborhood organizations will prove "fruitful" for the longevity of his market makeover project, resulting in even more fresh produce offerings.
4. Provide health resources
The grand opening on March 29 featured music, food, face painting, loteria, dance performances, youth-led workouts, and raffles. Several workshops throughout the day focused on "smart snacking," because Nelson's store is the snack mecca for the dozens of junior and senior high school students who swarm the store every afternoon, eager for a quick bite. Up until now, kids would line up out the door for the array of sugary, salty, and processed "junk" snacks that made of the bulk of the store's offerings. Now, students looking for a grab-and-go bite can reach for a tangerine, bananas, yogurt, trail mix, baggies of apples or carrots, healthy breakfast, or protein bars. As part of the transformation, Nelson plans to continue offering health resources and nutritional information to help residents make healthier food choices. Additionally, the "Community Zone" inside the store offers computers for students to do homework and space for community meetings. To help with these changes, Nelson recently hired two more employees, increasing the number of jobs in this community.
5. Live the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles
The draft Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles identifies the need to expand access to healthy food and promote sustainable local food systems as a key aspect of addressing health disparities across the city. The draft Plan calls out as an objective for the City of Los Angeles "to increase the number of corner neighborhood stores in low-income and underserved areas that offer a substantive supply of fresh fruits and vegetables." The Grand Re-opening of Nelson's store as Alba Snacks & Services brings to life this policy objective. His market makeover project can serve as a demonstration project of how to creatively transform the existing food landscape in South Los Angeles, and therefore inform the kinds of policies and resources that could be included in the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles and beyond. The Plan will be a valuable blueprint for how city leaders tackle the major health inequities seen across Los Angeles. Real-time examples like Nelson's store conversion project highlight the immense opportunities to invest in the existing resources of underserved communities, to catalyze increased healthy food access and improve residents' chances of health.