Los Angeles is a food lover's paradise — unless you happen to live in the Ramona Gardens housing project. Other parts of the city have organic farmers markets and natural food emporiums, but this neighborhood, surrounded by freeways, train tracks, and industrial warehouses, is isolated from all that.
"From here, you look all around, there's no market," says Olga Perez, a 48-year-old single mother who lives in the projects.
Unlike some other low-income neighborhoods, there's no glut of burger joints or taco trucks; there aren't even any liquor stores selling milk and bread.
Perez found out how the other half lives during a trip across town to upscale Santa Monica, where she visited a local supermarket.
There, she was amazed by "the apples, the strawberries, the vegetables, the squash, everything," Perez says. "I wanted so bad to just bite the fruit right then and there as soon as I seen it. It really opened my eyes. ... I didn't even know there were markets out there like that. And I didn't know there was organic food. I didn' t even know what that was."
Limited Local Choices
Ramona Gardens is in a part of East L.A. that's never been able to attract a big supermarket for at least two reasons: People who live here don't have much money, and the area has a reputation for gang violence. People depend on the lone convenience store that survived looting during the 1992 L.A. riots. But Perez says choices are limited at the market, with costly food and products often out of date.
"I bought sour cream that was all green inside," she says. "I bought a gallon of orange juice that was ... as soon as I opened the lid, all green with fur. I've bought Rice-a-Roni, and when I opened the box, it was maggots in there."
When told the neighbors complain about the food, Karim Raza, one of the market's two managers, acts surprised. "The food? No, I don't think so," he says. "Right now you can check: nothing. Nothing's expired now. "
Then he says if he does see that food is out of date, he throws it out. He points out that the market has new owners and now has a meat counter and small produce section. But the other manager, Lori Ruiz, says they can't offer everything a big supermarket can. And she says they have to charge more than the grocery chains.
"In the big markets, they always have a promotion, and special prices," Ruiz says. "They buy by pallets, and we don't buy by the pallets because we don't sell that much."
The neighborhood has just one local street vendor who brings a few fresh fruits and vegetables. But residents like Perez say the merchant comes during the day when they're at work. So she and the others depend on the nearest supermarket, which is a bus ride away.
A Trek To The Market
Nearly three miles away, at the Superior grocery store, Perez finds better choices. But she can buy only what she can carry back home in her arms. Instead of a head of lettuce, she buys a small bag. She can't buy more than a few cans, and she can manage only half a gallon of milk.
"That's what really kills me, when there's a special and I can't get it," she says.
The people of Ramona Gardens are in a tough situation, says University of Southern California professor Cheryl Resnick, who runs a weekly free clinic for families in the community. Resnick says their poor food choices are taking a toll: a preponderance of hypertension, early-onset diabetes and obesity.
"I had to buy a scale that goes up to 500 pounds because we had three children come in that exceeded the 250-pound weight limit of our clinic scale," says Resnick. "When you have a 9-year-old who weighs 150 and when you have a 14-year-old that weighs over 250, you know you have a problem."
Now, with help from a community group called LA Voice PICO, Perez and some of her neighbors are speaking out and lobbying politicians to help them get more healthful food options.
They recently won a small victory when Superior grocery store district manager Marco Sosa brought back free shuttle van rides for customers, something he dropped last year because of cost.
"As long as they spend $40 of shopping, they'll qualify to get into the van," Sosa says.
Perez is glad for the shuttle but says that's just a partial solution. Her goal is to get a real supermarket in Ramona Gardens. She says her mother's early death from diabetes still haunts her, and she wants something better for herself, her family and her neighbors: fresh, organic foods, like the rest of L.A.
"It doesn't matter if we live in a low-income area," says Perez. "We all deserve to eat the fresh fruits that nature provided for us. We shouldn't be divided."