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Poor Penalized as Food Chains Exit Inner City : Residents Face Long Trip to Supermarket or Higher Prices at Remaining Independents

January 02, 1989|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Low-income residents of South-Central Los Angeles pay some of the highest prices in the area to buy food at small neighborhood stores because lower-priced chain supermarkets are abandoning the inner city for the suburbs.

The migration of supermarkets from the inner city--which began after the 1965 Watts riots--has accelerated in recent years as owners have embraced larger stores and closed smaller ones in the wake of industry mergers. The number of supermarkets in South-Central has dwindled to less than 30 from about 55 in 1965. Nearly half of that loss--11 markets--occurred in the last six years, according to telephone book listings.

As the trend has quickened, it has begun to severely limit access to food for some of the region's poorest residents--a problem that could eventually prove as intractable as finding housing for the homeless, some observers say.

Today, neither Lucky's, Vons and Alpha Beta, nor smaller outfits such as Mayfair, operate a single store in a nearly 50-square-mile area of Los Angeles stretching from the Santa Monica to Artesia freeways on the north and south, and Alameda and Crenshaw boulevards on the east and west. They have left this area of mostly poor black and Latino residents to smaller markets and a few independent stores--operations that a committee of Congress said charge prices that are 20% to 30% higher than supermarkets.

'Classic Example'

"South-Central Los Angeles has become a classic example of supermarkets deserting the inner city," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "Black people and the poor find themselves continuously being victimized by problems of racism and economic class discrimination. . . . These chains need to understand that poor people have to eat too."

"Stores live and die on their economic performance," responded Vons spokeswoman Vicky Sanders, when asked to comment on why Vons closed several inner-city stores. "Having just acquired (172 Southern California stores of) Safeway, we are being very cautious and conservative about opening brand new stores" and keeping existing ones.

Almost unique among businesses, supermarkets--with their community bulletin boards trumpeting yard sales and lost pets, and their checkout aisles as havens for neighborhood small talk--have become important economic and social fixtures on the American landscape. Thus, image-conscious chains are sensitive about closings. The chief executives of only two chains in Southern California--Boys and Ralphs--agreed to discuss the situation with The Times.

Wrestle With Issue

But privately, officials have wrestled with the issue for years and the phenomenon is not confined to Los Angeles: a dozen supermarkets have abandoned central Newark, N.J., since the 1967 riots; in Boston's low-income Roxbury section, the nearest supermarket is two bus rides away; and so many supermarkets have left Washington, D.C., that City Councilman John Ray has introduced legislation granting tax breaks and other subsidies to lure them back.

The loss of supermarkets, however, is especially acute in sprawling Los Angeles, where limited public transportation makes access to stores difficult for those without cars. Although at least three new supermarkets have been built in the inner city of Los Angeles in recent years--including Willowbrook, Compton and the corner of Vermont and Slauson avenues--the loss of existing stores far outpaces the new construction.

Meanwhile, efforts to address the issue--including so-called "enterprise zones" and other government inducements--have produced little change, experts say. Many government programs take years to get off the ground, they say, and often end up attracting merchants who already have stores in the area rather than new businesses.

'Very Real Problem'

"The difficulty of obtaining food continues to be a very real problem for people on the fringes of poverty and the working poor," said Patty Morris, research director of Public Voice, a Washington consumer group that follows food policy making. "They are being economically penalized. . . . The situation is disturbing," she added, likening it to "the disappearance of the family farm."

In a report called "Obtaining Food: Shopping Constraints on the Poor," the House Select Committee on Hunger found early in 1988 that many low-income residents are not within walking distance of a supermarket and must patronize smaller independent stores whose prices are 20% to 30% higher than chains. Thus, the report said, poor families may spend up to 61% of their weekly budgets on food. The average U.S. consumer spends 15% to 20%.

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