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Shoppers Get San Diego Grocery Store To Clean Up Its Act

Residents around Market Creek Plaza had access to a grocery store. But they said the store wasn't up to par, so they worked together to change things.

There's been a lot of focus on "food deserts," low-income neighborhoods that don't have access to grocery stores. But what happens if a neighborhood has a grocery store that isn't offering quality food?

The Food 4 Less on Euclid Avenue in southeastern San Diego has been the center of Market Creek Plaza for more than 10 years. It's the only grocery store in the neighborhood, but for a long time, residents like Gwen Howell didn't want to shop there.

"I have always shopped at Food 4 Less and when it first started out they were really great, then over the years it just downgraded and it became really unpleasant to come here," Howell said. "The lines were extremely long always, the produce was not good, the customer service was not good."

So Howell and some of her neighbors decided to see if they could change things. Working with the community advocacy group Urban Collaborative Project, they wrote a letter to Kroger, the company that runs Food 4 Less.

"They acknowledged there could be some improvements," said Barry Pollard, Urban Collaborative Project's director. "We went down the list of some of the things we were concerned with, and they got right on it. There was no pushback, there was no pointing fingers, no stalling, it just went extremely smooth."

Six months later and Howell says the store has completely changed.

"The produce is a whole lot better, the store is a whole lot cleaner, the customer service is astronomical and the lines are no longer down the aisle," she said. "So I'm happy. I'm very happy."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

An employee checks the produce at the Food 4 Less in Market Creek Plaza on June 13, 2014.

Without Food 4 Less, Howell's neighborhood would be a so-called food desert, a low-income area without access to grocery stores. Food deserts mean residents can't buy fresh produce and healthier foods.

Just east of Market Creek Plaza is one of the few pockets in San Diego labeled a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Research has found that food deserts emerge because grocery chains don't want to put stores in poorer neighborhoods where they think profits will suffer. Kendra Doyle, a spokeswoman for Food 4 Less, said the Market Creek store brings in a profit just under the average for the other 148 Food 4 Less stores in the country. But, she said, her company is invested in it.

"You see across all of Food 4 Less throughout California that we have continued to invest within our stores to make them better, and this is another great example," she said. "We want to make sure that we are continuing to be offering what it is the community needs and in the areas that maybe don't have another choice."

Howell, Pollard and other community members met with Doyle and Food 4 Less's district manager in April. They left that meeting with a promise that many things would change in the store. Produce would be fresh and well stocked, checkout lines would be shorter and floors and shopping carts would be clean. Employees also wouldn't hang out in front of the store and would provide better customer service.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Customers check out at the Food 4 Less in Market Creek Plaza on June 13, 2014.

Doyle said Kroger had already planned to invest $1 million in the Market Creek Food 4 Less last year, and now is working with the Urban Collaborative Project on making these changes.

"For all of us, we know that we can always do better, and when people take the time to offer feedback, we value that at Food 4 Less very, very much," Doyle said. "And for this community group to take the time and attention that they did, we want to be receptive to it and we want to work together to make this store a great store for the neighborhood."

Howell said she was surprised at how fast the improvements came, and that a big corporation like Kroger was willing to listen.

"It makes me feel like — I know that I need you for my food, but I can go to Lemon Grove or I can go to Clairemont," she said, referring to the two other San Diego Food 4 Less locations. "But because you are now treating me with respect, I'm happy to come here and I will tell everyone, and I do, I tell everyone about the changes that have gone on at Food 4 Less."

Since that meeting with Food 4 Less executives, Pollard said he's continuing to keep tabs on the store.

"I nose around, ask how it's going and (customers) love it," he said. "I'm looking at the fruit and the meat section and the organization of it is 100 percent better. The freshness of the fruit is 100 percent better. And that's what we wanted."

Pollard said his group's victory also means more than just what goes into shopping carts.

"We wanted quite frankly what other communities get and we were able to get that in a very painless sort of way," he said. "I think in this case, it was just letting folks know what was going on."

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