Monday, May 12, 2008

Food Deserts: Coalition to Create 'Blue Ribbon' Commission, Draft Report to Encourage Grocers to Open Stores in Underserved Los Angeles Neighborhoods

What is being called a blue ribbon commission by the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Responsible and Healthy Grocery Stores will be convened in the city to address the need for grocery stores that offer basic groceries and fresh foods at reasonable prices to locate in neighborhoods currently are underserved by such food retailers. These urban neighborhoods often are referred to as food deserts.

The alliance is a citywide coalition of 25 Los Angeles faith-based, environmental and labor organizations. Among the coalitions recent projects included a campaign to eliminate two-tier labor contracts in the region's heavily unionized supermarket industry and stopping Wal-Mart from building a big-box Supercenter in Inglewood, California.

The Alliance for Responsible and Healthy Grocery Stores is currently involved in a campaign to get Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which is based in Southern California, to sign what the group calls a "community benefits" contract. The contract sets out certain community-oriented goals Tesco would meet, such as locating more of its Fresh & Easy grocery stores in underserved Los Angeles neighborhoods and agreeing to meet certain environmental and labor standards.

The coalition is only asking Tesco to sign such an agreement but not other major supermarket chains like Safeway Stores, Inc. or Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs, both which also are based in California, and in terms of store count and sales are much bigger than Tesco's Fresh & Easy. This singling out of Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market not only has Tesco executives wondering why, but many local grocery industry observers thinking the same thing.

The coalition has said in part the reason it's asking Tesco to sign the "community benefits" agreements is because the grocer came into the market promising to built stores in food desert neighborhoods but thus far has only opened two Fresh & Easy grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods in the city and region.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy also in a non-union shop. On the other hand Safeway and Ralph's are union supermarket chains. Since organized labor is a key member of the alliance, this non-union status also has much to do with why the group is singling out Tesco in terms of wanting the retailer to sign the "community benefits" contract regarding its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market grocery chain and its operations in the region.

Tesco has thus far declined to meet with the alliance to discuss it's proposed "community benefits" contract.

The coalition recently held a hearing attended by 200 members in which it laid out its plans to form the blue ribbon commission to further address the food desert issue in Los Angeles, as well as to write a report designed to create methods and incentives to get major grocery chains to locate more supermarkets in Los Angeles neighborhoods deemed underserved by food stores offering groceries and fresh foods at reasonable prices.

"The latest trends in the highly competitive supermarket industry, coupled with rising food prices and our city's chronic "food desert" problem, may conspire to actually harm communities, says Amanda Shaffer, director of communications for the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, which is a member of the coalition.

The Occidental College think tank has conducted numerous studies documenting the urban food desert situation in Los Angeles. [You can read about the centers food desert research here

The urban research center also conducted a study about Tesco's Fresh & Easy and its commitment to open stores in underserved neighborhoods as part of its strategy to locate its small-format neighborhood grocery markets in food desert regions. You can read the research institute's Tesco Fresh & Easy study at this link.

Tesco has about 31 of its 61 Fresh & Easy grocery stores located in Southern California. To date, it's opened two stores in what can be considered underserved or food desert neighborhoods in the region. One of those stores is in a Los Angeles neighborhood and the other is in the Los Angeles County city of Compton.

The alliance wants Tesco, along with other major supermarket chains, to open more stores in the city's food desert neighborhoods.

Ms. Shaffer says the coalition hopes creating the blue ribbon committee composed of leading Los Angelenos, along with writing the report which will include incentives for grocery stores to open stores in the underserved neighborhoods, that these food desert neighborhoods will start to see supermarkets bloom in them in the not too distant future.

The coalition has many heavy hitters in it representing the Los Angeles faith community, non-profit organization world, academia, organized labor and environmental groups. These groups are politically active and have strong ties at Los Angeles city hall, among the mayor and a number of members of the City Council.

You can read more about the alliance's meeting last week in which they started the ground work for the blue ribbon commission, along with the coalitions current objectives and campaigns regarding Tesco and other grocery industry companies and issues here.

No comments: