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Shoppers Get San Diego Grocery Store To Clean Up Its Act

Evening Edition

Aired 6/24/14 on KPBS News.

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."

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.

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."

Comments

Avatar for user 'Lance'

Lance | June 24, 2014 at 9:58 a.m. ― 5 months ago

It gives me hope when I see communities come together to bring about positive change like this. This is a much more productive use of everyone's time than endlessly kvetching about it on Yelp and other social media. Kudos to Ms. Howell, the community, the Urban Collaborative Project, and Kroger for making this happen.

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Avatar for user 'smickandily'

smickandily | June 24, 2014 at 10:10 a.m. ― 5 months ago

The Vons at 3610 Adams Ave is a sad example of how to mistreat customers. I live a few blocks away so I shop there regularly. I've waited in line for over 30 minutes some nights. They are understaffed, the employees seem untrained and unmotivated, the prices are just absurd (though this is the norm nor in Southern California), and the quality of food offered is severely lacking. They don't care for their customers. The lines there are out of control. It is a nightly occurrence to for them to have only one lane open, and for the line to wrap all the way around to the deli. I've seen a dozen people visibly upset waiting in line to give them their money. I've spoken with the manager there and he seemed bothered that I should even be complaining. I was very courteous and nice, he gave the impression that nobody there cares. Bring your business elsewhere.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 24, 2014 at 10:18 a.m. ― 5 months ago

smickandily I have been to other Vons stores with this exact problem. Late at night, one line stretching down the isle. If I am there, I throw my items into a display bin and walk out. Unbelievable.

Talking to the store staff is pointless - call the corporate number and complain. Nothing else will get their attention, and they fear corporate complaints.

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Avatar for user 'RichieSnare'

RichieSnare | June 24, 2014 at 11:19 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Interesting..poor neighborhoods, yet in the photo the woman with the 2 children is buying a CASE of Tecate beer. #priorities

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 24, 2014 at 12:36 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Richie maybe she bought it with the money she saved by using her EBT card to buy food.

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Avatar for user 'progressivebuthey'

progressivebuthey | June 24, 2014 at 3:02 p.m. ― 5 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Avatar for user 'linlin'

linlin | June 24, 2014 at 3:21 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Richie, yep, and note there is nothing else in her cart and nothing else but a jug of water on the conveyor. The cashier is checking her ID -- a Mexico passport -- and the case of beer appears to be the second item rung up. The first appears to be "something" gum, but it is hard to read. So much for fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meats. #priorities_indeed

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 24, 2014 at 3:25 p.m. ― 5 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 24, 2014 at 3:57 p.m. ― 5 months ago

I personally find the bix box stores like albertsons, ralphs, vons, piggly wiggly - whatever - to be smelly, too big, and like airplane hangars full of mostly processed crap.

I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe's, they have a dcent selection of reasobaly priced organics. I will go to Whole Foods for produce I can't get at TJs.

But I realize I am lucky.

I have reliable transportation and an income that allows me to CHOOSE where and what I want to buy.

Many people in America's inner cities simply don't have these choices.

I see people on here lecturing poor people about managing their money better - but if you don't have transporation and are stuck in a food desert, it doesn't matter how well you manage your money - your choices for healthy food simply aren't there even if you have the money to buy.

That's the problem.

This is why I like the idea of community gardens, but we also need small convenience stores like 7-11 which are sometimes the only options in food deserts to offer more fresh produce and healthier choices.

Also, please don't judge the woman buying the tecate beer. You can't tell from a picture or where someone is shopping how much money they have and if they are on food stamps.

Furthermore, you aren't allowed by law to buy alcohol or tobacco products with EBT cards, so there is no way she is using "food stamps" to buy her beer.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 25, 2014 at 8:57 a.m. ― 5 months ago

I said she used her food stamps to buy groceries which allows her to have money left over for beer.

Mexican and Asian immigrants start life in this country with the same set of disadvantages - poor, from a different culture, not knowing English. Why do asian immigrants excel and succeed far beyond their natural born american peers but mexican immigrants choose not to learn the language, not to go to school, and not to make responsible family planning decisions?

Why are asians not included in statistics about minorities?

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | June 25, 2014 at 9:58 a.m. ― 5 months ago

JM,

Thanks for the dissertation on cultural anthropology. You guys are super-big jerks if you spout-off like that just because someone is photographed buying beer. The story is about improved shopping conditions, not the opportunity costs associated with buying beer as they may or may not pertain to perceived economic disadvantages. While we're on the subject of stereotypes, don't you guys have cocaine to buy? Pornography to view? Or, Middle Eastern countries to invade and make a mess of? Why am I thinking you guys are rocking the lame "surbuban pseudo-surfer dad" look with flip-flops while contemplating McDonald's vs Taco Bell.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 9:59 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Asian immigrants comprise a very diverse group and I don't think it's accurate to paint everyone with a broad brush.

Certain groups who are refugees like those in San Diego from Myanmar seem to have many of the same problems that poorer Latin American immigrant communities have.

Other groups, like Indian and Chinese immigrants, tend to have more tech job training/experience and education, so they are able to get higher paying jobs more easily and assimilate better.

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Avatar for user 'RichieSnare'

RichieSnare | June 25, 2014 at 11:01 a.m. ― 5 months ago

JeanMarc, you are right on the money. Life is full of choices, and good or bad, you are responsible for the ones that you make. The problem with our country is that we reward the low achievers. Our country is dumbed-down so that the unmotivated can "catch up".
DeLaRick, the story is about stores in LOW INCOME areas. You're too busy name calling to actually read the story. The picture of this immigrant buying alcohol is typical of what goes on in these neighborhoods. It's all about priorities.. That's why they are LOW INCOME. You sound bitter. Did you make bad decisions too?

Peking_Duck_SD, we're all glad you shop at Whole Foods.

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | June 25, 2014 at 11:09 a.m. ― 5 months ago

Ritchie,

You nailed it! Why are you wasting your time on this comment board when you should be solving the world's problems? I'm sure Obama will be calling you any second now to get your advice.

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | June 25, 2014 at 11:30 a.m. ― 5 months ago

That whole neighborhood is not poor by the way. Whats wrong with buying beer? Having a mexican passport can mean she is a permanent resident.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 12:27 p.m. ― 5 months ago

Richie, I "target" shop at Whole Foods, meaning I buy certain organic produce there that I can't find anywhere else. I cannot afford to do my whole grocery shopping there.

But the point of my post was not to brag about where I shop, it was to illustrate that not everyone has choices in where to shop. I am lucky because I have access to reliable transportation, and many in food deserts don't.

To further my point, many people here seem to want to cast blame on entire communities and imply that everyone who is poor or who is stuck in a food desert is comehow there because they haven't worked hard enough or they don't know how to manage their money.

I don't think that type of broad-brush stereo-typing is either accurate or fair.

There are hard working people and lazy people in all communities.

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Avatar for user 'RichieSnare'

RichieSnare | June 25, 2014 at 1:16 p.m. ― 5 months ago

sdreefer-your screen name says it all. I'm sure you're behind that lady in line buying Doritos.

DeLaRick-If Obama asked me for advice, I'd tell him to quit.

Peking_Duck_SD- Yes, you WERE bragging, and yes there are hard working and lazy people in all communities. HOWEVER, it's NOT that broad of a brush...

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 4:33 p.m. ― 5 months ago

RichieSnare, your rants about how easy the poor have it and how, and I quote you: "The problem with our country is that we reward the low achievers" are pretty rich considering the fact this country is increasingly becoming a plutocracy where all the wealth and political power is concentrated at the top 1%.

Wages for the poor and middle class have been stagnated for decades while CEOs wages have skyrocketed. The tax system is set-up to give breaks to big corporations and the super rich. We finally got the ACA where the poor can actually have an option of going to the doctor without going into bankruptcy (I'm sure your are against that too).

Do you Fox "news" peeps get some sick pleasure out of stacking things against poor people and then turning around and accusing them of bringing it all on themselves?

Does that mean I'm a better person than someone on food stamps because I "brag" about going to Whole Foods? (I'm not wealthy and I only buy a small amount of things there, but hey - I'm "bragging" for mentioning it).

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | June 25, 2014 at 10:50 p.m. ― 5 months ago

My screen name refers to the keeping of marine invertibrates. But doritos are tasty.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 30, 2014 at 8:52 a.m. ― 4 months, 3 weeks ago

sdreefer21 don't be upset at RichieSnare, a lot of leftists think it is cool to smoke pot like obama and clinton, so when he sees "reefer" he automatically thinks of his drug of choice.

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Avatar for user 'RichieSnare'

RichieSnare | July 1, 2014 at 7:16 p.m. ― 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I'm far from being a leftist, and I'm far from a pot smoker.

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