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Fresh, in South L.A.

A British grocery store chain will be a welcome addition in areas that supermarkets have neglected.

June 21, 2007

FOR DECADES, IT has been next to impossible to put affordable, healthy meals on the table in neighborhoods such as South Los Angeles. There are fast-food joints, to be sure, and a few expensive, poorly stocked corner groceries. But supermarkets are scarce -- less than one for every 100,000 people, compared with nearly five for every 100,000 on the Westside. There have been moments when attention has been paid to this neglect, as when grocery chains promised to build 32 stores in underserved communities after the 1992 riots. But the concern was short-lived. By 2002, South L.A. had a net gain of just one new supermarket.

Such inaction has had both practical and symbolic effects. It has burdened residents of poor neighborhoods while serving as a reminder of their marginalization from prosperous L.A.

Today, empty promises may be giving way to brick and mortar. British grocery giant Tesco, seeking to make a big debut in the United States with its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain, is planning to build a store at Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue. Like rivals such as Trader Joe's, Fresh & Easy markets will be relatively small and will carry produce, meats and prepared dishes at low prices. Unlike some of its rivals, Tesco appears to have an open mind about taking a chance on lower-income neighborhoods.

The company, which owns a third of the British grocery market, has figured out how to make its stores work in such neighborhoods in Britain. That may be why it's willing to open Fresh & Easy markets in Pico Rivera and Fontana -- and not just in Manhattan Beach and Laguna Hills. Still unknown is whether the markets will satisfy lower-income shoppers' needs and what kind of employer the hyper-efficient Tesco will turn out to be.

But for the time being, its South L.A. experiment may remind other grocers that there is opportunity in underserved neighborhoods.

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