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City Heights Residents Want A Grocery Store But Maybe Not El Super

Since Albertsons closed its doors in City Heights in February 2014, the parki...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Since Albertsons closed its doors in City Heights in February 2014, the parking lot at the once-busy City Heights Urban Village is nearly empty.

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Albertsons caused an uproar when it left the so-called food desert in February. Now, a new supermarket is coming to City Heights, but residents aren't welcoming it with open arms.

Residents reeled when Albertsons announced this year it was closing its grocery store in City Heights, which many call a food desert. Now, there's news another grocer could take its place as early as August, but the reaction to it is about the same — sour.

The replacement, El Super, is embroiled in tense union contract negotiations with workers in Los Angeles who want paid sick leave and better wages. Attention on the company has brought forward allegations its stores stock expired dairy products, meat and baby food.

"It doesn't make me feel better that a new supermarket is going to be in City Heights when they're not treating their workers fairly and when they could be endangering the health of everyone who either shops or works there," said City Heights resident Cathy Mendonca.

Mendonca lives across the street from the boarded-up grocery store on University Avenue at Fairmount in City Heights. She said she's had to travel to other communities to find vegan groceries since the store closed, and worries about residents who lack cars and haven't had the same option to go elsewhere.

But this week she brought together residents and representatives of the local chapter of United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing El Super employees up north, to begin crafting the message that El Super isn't welcome in City Heights if labor problems and poor health conditions persist.

A representative for El Super said he could not comment on allegations against the company nor its plans in City Heights, because the lawyer most informed on the situation in Los Angeles was tied up with union business. But he sent a fact sheet outlining proposed increases in wages and paid time off for workers under a union contract, and stating the company complies with food safety standards.

Residents at Mendonca's meeting suggested pursuing a community benefit agreement with El Super through the neighborhood's planning committee. The binding document would lay ground rules such as hiring locally — Councilwoman Marti Emerald said the company has already agreed to this informally — and paying livable wages.

Meeting attendees also offered up Encanto residents' recent success in demanding improvements at their neighborhood Food 4 Less as a model. Residents in the southeastern San Diego neighborhood went straight to the store's parent company, Kroger, to ask for fresher produce, better service and cleaner aisles.

Income barriers and a high concentration of liquor stores and fast-food restaurants have many in City Heights concerned about the availability of fresh produce in the neighborhood, home to many immigrants. Despite several smaller markets offering produce, a robust farmers market and several community gardens, the neighborhood lacks the recommended amount of grocery retail space for its size.

Emerald, whose City Council district includes City Heights, said she and community volunteers worked with the neighborhood's small grocers to ensure necessities such as baby formula and transit passes would be available at nearby markets once Albertsons closed its doors for good.

Emerald said she called property owner Kimco to voice community concerns about finding a replacement, but said bringing El Super to City Heights was a private business decision.

Albertsons closed 11 of its Southern California stores in February as a cost-cutting measure.

El Super is a subsidiary of one of Mexico's largest retail chains, Grupo Comercial Chedraui, which is headed by Mexican billionaire Alfredo Chedraui Obeso. It has 40 stores in Southern California, including two in San Diego County. Seven of the full-service Mexican markets are unionized – a holdover from the company's purchase of the former Gigante supermarkets.

Mickey Kasparian, president of San Diego's UFCW Local 135, would not say whether local El Super workers are organizing, but said he would support the community in educating residents and prospective employees about the company.

"If (El Super is) going to come into any community, then first and foremost, let's create good local jobs, let's treat those workers with respect and, then, adapt to the community you're going to operate in," Kasparian said.

Correction: El Super is not owned by Alfredo Chedraui Obeso. It is a subsidiary of Grupo Comercial Chedraui, a publicly traded company headed by Obeso.

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