By Pastor Norman S. Johnson and Pastor William Monroe Campbell
Walking into a grocery store in West L.A., you would think you walked into a different world. The doors open to all colors of excellent, shining produce. A healthy deli stands at the ready on one side, while on the other flowers for all occasions are stacked floor to ceiling. The store welcomes patrons in to enjoy the abundance.
In South L.A., the store entrance funnels shoppers to junk food. Produce seems often an afterthought–not much variety, not very fresh. Shoppers at some stores can’t even take carts out to their cars. The message sent to customers is to spend money quickly and not linger.
But the issue of grocery stores goes beyond a basic lack of respect. Access to food is among the most basic rights. Without healthy food nourishing the body, one is impaired in nourishing the soul. Without food sustaining the individual, communities are sorely compromised as they seek to prosper.
Truly, it is a challenge to properly nourish ourselves in South L.A., and in other “food deserts” where quality grocery stores are scarce. Too many of our children grow up on junk food, because balanced meals are not an easy option. Lack of nutrition harms individuals and does violence to our communities. Diet-related illnesses, such as childhood obesity and diabetes, plague our neighborhoods and shorten life expectancy.
This violence is not inevitable; it is the result of deliberate decisions by those who control the grocery companies, who for the most part choose not to do business in low-income communities of color. When they do, most offer second-rate service and third-rate food. Prices are often higher in South L.A. than for equivalent groceries in wealthier neighborhoods, where there is more competition. Such redlining and inferior service are unacceptable, but particularly so from an industry entrusted with meeting such a fundamental need as food.
We know that quality grocery stores could be successful in South L.A. Studies have even shown that more money is spent per square mile by residents of South Los Angeles than those of wealthier areas like Santa Monica. But with the offerings as they are, the money in our neighborhoods flows to junk food providers or out of our community to nicer stores elsewhere. Wages in the grocery industry are 37% higher in West L.A. than South L.A. The result is reverse economic development, as the grocery industry helps money flow right out of lower-income communities and into wealthier communities.
However, while we continue to see injustice, before us is an opportunity. People across Los Angeles are pushing city leaders to address this problem, recognizing that the grocery companies themselves have repeatedly failed us. One of the groups pushing for a citywide policy, the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, recently issued report cards grading Los Angeles’ major grocery chains. The report cards were based on objective surveys and included grades for each chain on the quality of their stores, the quality of jobs they provide, and their accessibility to people living in food deserts.
The Alliance found “a widening grocery divide in Los Angeles between wealthy neighborhoods with an abundance of stores offering quality products and good jobs, and low income communities with inadequate grocery options, limited products and lower-quality jobs.”
The report cards demonstrated what those of us in South L.A., parts of the Valley and East L.A. expected: the grocery industry–an industry entrusted with meeting a fundamental human right–is failing large sections of Los Angeles. The reaction to this report card and the growing call for food justice, from elected officials and residents across the city, signals a real opportunity.
It is time for us to stop accepting injustice in our food. Residents of South L.A. should join with voices from across the city as we demand responsibility from grocery chains and from our elected officials.