Author: Lena Smith
In a time when Whole Foods boasts a strong customer base and other supermarkets are increasing their stock of in-demand organic food products, neighborhood markets that rely on everyday customers coming in for fresh fruit and a cut of meat for that night’s dinner seem obsolete. Eagle Rock and Highland Park have their share of grocery stores, but several have closed in the past few years: most recently the relatively low-priced Super A Foods and specialty grocery store Fresh and Easy, both on Eagle Rock Boulevard. According to The Eastsider, Super A is closing because it lost its lease. Over the past few years, Fresh and Easy has been closing stores around the country. In 2013, Figueroa Produce, which was an independent store at York Boulevard and Figueroa Boulevard, closed as well.
The dwindling number of grocery stores in the area points to the divide between wealthier customers who demand organic products and customers who prioritize low prices. Perhaps the middle ground is not oversized stores with more food than any person knows what to do with, but small, neighborhood markets, where the emphasis is on real food and real relationships with the customers. Were there more of these markets around Los Angeles, they would supply different neighborhoods with the specialty foods they want, help eliminate nutrition-strapped food deserts and encourage healthy shopping.
But for affordable, healthy food, neighborhood residents should have more opportunities to shop even closer to their homes. Small business owners have the ability to be more responsive to their communities’ needs than chain stores. For example, a stellar example of a neighborhood market is Guerrero’s Market on York Boulevard, which is surviving even as many nearby businesses are being pushed out by gentrification. The small market sells a combination of staples, like pasta, and foods catering to the local demand, like plantains. It’s richly packed with fruits, vegetables and a minimum of boxes with processed, empty calories. Customers also leave with their bank accounts still intact, unlike after a trip to Whole Foods, which has been criticized for its expensive prices and fined for overcharging customers.
Super A attracted customers with low prices and a wide selection. Upon stepping into Super A, it closely resembled a Safeway, except that it was often even less expensive, offering cheaper prices on products like vegetables, meat and spices. However, like Safeway, sugary baked goods were the most prominent display at the entrance. The call of that sugar rush is part of most supermarket shopping experiences, whether at Target, Walmart or Whole Foods, while a back-to-basics local market like Guerrero’s pushes its vegetables more than its baked goods.
Figueroa Produce was more like Guerrero’s in that it was the kind of place where any customer could go into the store, have a conversation with the owner and expect the store to fulfill the community’s shopping needs. It made itself a part of the unique culture of the neighborhood, rather than only selling national brands.
Markets in the neighborhoods of Montpellier, France, where I studied abroad for a semester, showed the value brought by a market dialing into its neighborhood. The woman who frequently helped me at the register once told me which mandarin oranges tasted the best. Small gestures that come from a shopkeeper who wants her neighborhood to eat well exemplify the spirit of the local market. They also encourage healthy eating, since people feel welcome at these small stores where they find friendly faces. During several visits to existing Sprouts stores, I have had off-putting experiences with employees who are neither friendly nor helpful.
Small, neighborhood markets may not be the easiest sell, but in terms of keeping neighborhoods healthy, they have a lot to offer. With the benefit of combining quality with low prices, they are the place where affluent, organically-minded shoppers and practical, thrifty cooks can come together.
Lena Smith is a senior Group Language major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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