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Good for Your Body, Good to Your Soul: South L.A.'s Health Food Movement Gains Momentum

Produce Stand at LA County USC Medical Center I Photo Courtesy of Community Services Unlimited., Inc

When Bahni Turpin looks at the corner of Jefferson and Crenshaw, she does not see the brash hot pink facade of the 99 Cents Only Store that stands there currently. Instead, she has visions of a nascent food revolution in South Los Angeles that she and other food entrepreneurs are spearheading. Most recently, Roy Choi announced he will be opening a healthy fast food restaurant in Watts. Choi's foray is the latest in what some are saying is a type of "food renaissance" in South L.A. Not only in terms of places to eat, but where to buy it, and how to prepare it.

Turpin, an actress, book narrator, and yoga teacher, is the visionary and the main force behind the SoLA Food Co-Op in South Los Angeles, that in the near future, will bring fresh, organic fruits, vegetables and other items to the area. "I have never started a grocery store before. I am the visionary, I set it in motion, but my skill set is not business. We're looking for [folks with that expertise] to show up and get involved."

Bahni Turpin at Leimert Park Artwalk Pop-Up I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.
Bahni Turpin at Leimert Park Artwalk Pop-Up I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.

Food co-operatives operate by selling memberships to the general public; members are then able to purchase bulk amounts of food at lower prices than non-members, share in the profits generated by sales, vote and determine the direction of the enterprise. The profits from the sales can either be distributed outright to the members, or they can be reinvested into the cooperative. Also, members of the co-op help run the store -- literally stocking the shelves, bagging the groceries, checking them out at the register, and sweeping the floors, as part of their membership. Paid employees of the co-op are expected to be members and live in the area where the co-op is located. Glut Food Co-op in Mt. Rainier, Maryland; Sevananda Food Co-op in the Little 5 Points area of Atlanta, Georgia; and People's' Food Co-op in Portland, Oregon; are some of the country's oldest enterprises that use this model.

Leimert Park Artwalk Pop-Up I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.
Leimert Park Artwalk Pop-Up I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.

Much work remains to be done before the co-op can materialize and open it doors. For one, Turpin notes that SoLA needs to build a board of directors and generate new memberships to sustain it. Perhaps most importantly, SoLA is currently searching for a location, whether its an existing building or, as Turpin hopes, an empty lot where a building can be constructed using sustainable materials. Incorporated in February of 2014, the South Los Angeles Food Co-Op's original business plan called for a store of around 13,000 square feet -- the size of the current 99 Cents Only Store at Jefferson and Crenshaw Blvds. That location was originally slated to be a Fresh and Easy store but the plans were scuttled when the UK-based company began liquidating its Southern California stores.

Smoothie demo at William Grant Still Community Arts Center I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.
Smoothie demo at William Grant Still Community Arts Center I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.

A Double Bottom Line
Turpin's co-op enters good company with Community Services Unlimited Inc (CSU.) Since 2007, this social enterprise has provided South L.A. communities with fresh and organic fruits, vegetables and other natural items. With their recent purchase of a 5,000 square foot building with an adjoining 10,000 square foot parking lot on Vermont Avenue as well as their expansion from one weekly produce stand to four, the prospects of a health food renaissance look promising.

CSU's growth over the years is evidence of the interest and need for healthy foods in the area. According to Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of CSU, the group started by serving 90 families in the South L.A. area. "At the end of 2014, we now sell to a number of chefs, small corner stores and a lot of wholesale orders. We estimate we've served 8,000 families," she said.

Rendering of The Paul Robeson Center I Photo courtesy of Community Services Unlimited., Inc
Rendering of The Paul Robeson Center I Photo courtesy of Community Services Unlimited., Inc

The space the group is moving into is huge, but so are the group's plans for the space. They include gutting the building and installing solar panels for energy; growing food on the rooftop as well as via an urban garden at the back of the building, and by utilizing space along the fence of the property; having a movable amphitheater and outdoor café in the parking lot area; a market, a commercial kitchen for cooking and packing items, and an office and meeting space on the upper floors of the building.

The efforts of CSU are noted by Clare Fox, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. "CSU historically has invested in people before projects and the purchase of the Paul Robeson Center is an extension of the Village Market social enterprise project into a retail operation. What I'm excited about is knowing their commitment to grass root leadership and they find all kinds of ways to build people power and the capacity of residents in South L.A. to self-determine their own health via healthy food options."

Though Community Services Unlimited's plans are ambitious, they are not a pipe dream. In a year that saw Fresh and Easy close 50 of its U.S. stores -- 30 of which were in Southern California - Sharma says they would never have moved forward without knowing they would be successful.

Produce Stand at the William Grant Still Community Arts Center I Photo Courtesy of Community Services Unlimited., Inc.
Produce Stand at the William Grant Still Community Arts Center I Photo Courtesy of Community Services Unlimited., Inc.

"We have an amazing team, dedicated, really passionate staff and core volunteers and hundreds of other volunteers. Also we've been building our reserve of money based on our income. Instead of earning great big fat salaries, we've been building a reserve to buy this building, as well as a capital campaign."

Community Services Unlimited was an initiative of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. As such, their mission is dedicated to "creating justice-driven community-based programs."

"Our bottom line is not profit," says Sharma. "We have a double bottom line: it is making money and also the community's well being. As we've always suspected, you can do both. You don't have to be greedy, but you can make some money and at the same time make really good food accessible to people who want it and have always wanted it, but nobody's ever spoken to that need in a way that makes sense."

Good for Your Soul
As SoLA and CSU lay out the foundations that will help make healthy foods accessible in the community, the healthy food revolution must also take place in the kitchen. At Lil Eden, restaurateur Sister Modupe has been hard at work changing the way people eat by changing the way she cooks... mainly by hardly cooking at all. Modupe's Lil Eden specializes in raw vegan soul food.

Sister Modupe, Chef / Owner (Right) I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.
Sister Modupe, Chef / Owner (Right) I Photo Courtesy of SoLA Food Co-Op.

A reference to the Jethro Kloss' classic natural food and remedy manual, "Back to Eden," Lil Eden's cuisine is either completely raw or cooked at a temperature of less than 120 degrees. When you consider that most recipes call for oven heating at a minimum of 300 degrees, and some cooking oils have a smoke point of more than 500 degrees, at first glance the idea of raw food can be kind of ... well ... scary.

However, Lil Eden's cuisine is plant-base, and the chances of illness due to uncooked or low cooked temperatures are mainly non-existent; food preparation still includes the proper washing of fruits and vegetables and equipment.

Modupe utilizes conventional kitchen equipment in her work, but sparingly.

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"I use a dehydrator but not a lot. I do a lot of hand chopping. It leaves the vegetables more intact so you get more of a crunch. A food processor can end up ripping up the food. I use a food processor for finely chopped work. No freezing and turning stuff to jelly, no chemical process. I do lots of hands-on chopping and shredding. A food processor, a blender, and a lot of knife work."

In addition to technique Modupe also says it's all about the seasonings and "making food interesting. Different textures, the presentation, the flavors, that's why it's soul food. Its tasty and good to your soul, not just good to your tongue."

Sister Modupe will be opening her new Lil Eden location on the outskirts of Leimert Park in the next couple of months. It will be the first raw vegan space in the area and all indications are that there is excitement afoot. "So many people were happy we were in Inglewood. They told us they used to have to go to all the way to Hollywood or Santa Monica to get raw vegan food." While healthy food establishments do exist in South Los Angeles their menus do not consist of completely raw food.

But who in their right mind would want to eat raw food?

Modupe's journey to raw food began by looking at 30 years of her own family line. She says she always loved being active, but noticed her family as well as others in her community were prone to health problems. "I started thinking to myself, 'Oh no, I've got to figure out something different because I want to be healthy. I want to be full of vitality and enjoy this journey. Who wants to be on 25 medications, hooked up to X-number of machines, living forever? I knew I needed to make some changes," she said.

Sister Modupe's Healthy Snacks I Photo by Thandisizwe Chimurenga.
Sister Modupe's Healthy Snacks I Photo by Thandisizwe Chimurenga.

Since Lil Eden's inception, Modupe has attracted clientele looking for similar lifestyle and nutritional changes. "I got a lot of people who were sent to me by doctors. They were looking for me, something different, something that was going to be healthy for them," Modupe says. "People are surrounded by fried chicken and ribs and burgers and all that kind of stuff and people that have so many ailments either in their family or what they are dealing with. People were looking for a change. They needed a change in their life and they wanted to give good food a try."

Naturally, many people are skeptical, but Modupe says it doesn't take much to make them change their minds. "One man brought his ex-wife to the restaurant, and she was just going on and on 'what am I supposed to eat, why did you bring me here,' etc., and she became a happy, repeat customer. She came back over and over and over. She even had me cater an event for her!"

Originally based in Inglewood, Modupe says for the year that they were located in the city it was like being at ground-zero with so many clinics and medical practitioners nearby. "Both naturopaths and western medical doctors would send people to me," she said. "Word spread, raw food is a way to get your cholesterol down. Many people don't want to be on a lot of medications."

And while the arrival of Roy Choi's restaurant in Watts is highly anticipated and will add its own flavor to South L.A., it's the work of visionaries like Modupe, Turpin and Sharma that has paved the way for healthier (and tastier) food access to the community.

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