When British grocery chain Tesco announced that it would expand into Southern California with its new line of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, shoppers and local officials took heart. They were particularly excited about the company's stated commitment to doing business in underserved neighborhoods, including South Los Angeles -- where affordable, fresh groceries have been hard to come by since the 1992 riots.
The first Fresh & Easy locations opened last week in Glassell Park, Anaheim, Arcadia, Hemet, West Covina and Upland. The much-heralded store in South Los Angeles was not among them.
Tesco offers an explanation for the delay: That store will be part of a development at Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue that also will include affordable housing, and the residential portion of the project hasn't yet secured all of its funding.
Still, a coalition of labor activists and community groups has loudly questioned Tesco's commitment to serving so-called food deserts, and their frustration is understandable. Researchers from Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute used liquor license applications to analyze 121 prospective locations for Fresh & Easy markets and found that less than 10% were in census tracts with significantly high poverty rates. Most were near existing supermarkets.
Fresh & Easy stores offer a modest mix of fresh foods, prepared foods and staples in an easy-to-navigate, clean and modern format. They provide a pleasant shopping experience for those of us lucky enough to have many shopping options. For shoppers in underserved areas, convenient access to a Fresh & Easy could be life-changing.
If, in the end, Tesco doesn't follow through with its stated plans, it will join a long list of market chains that have flirted with and ultimately abandoned South Los Angeles. But we remain hopeful that the Fresh & Easy romance won't come to that. Tesco officials say they still intend to open stores in South L.A. and several other food deserts. The company says it will open a store in Compton next year.
In the meantime, if Tesco wants to continue tooting its socially conscious horn, it must show -- not just tell -- Los Angeles that it is serious about bringing groceries to the city's underserved neighborhoods. And labor, for its part, might consider moderating its demands for a neighborhood benefits agreement to allow Tesco to get its Los Angeles-area operations off the ground. The residents of South Los Angeles are still waiting for affordable, fresh food.