ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine the nearest supermarket is miles away. You have no car. When you shop, you have two options: a bus ride to the market, where you buy only what you can carry or you buy your groceries at the nearest convenience store.
These so-called food deserts are common across the country. We're going to hear now about one community in East Los Angeles in a food desert, a community that's fighting for change.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Other parts of the city have organic farmers markets and natural food emporiums, but Olga Perez says her housing project, Ramona Gardens, is isolated from all that, surrounded by freeways, train tracks and industrial warehouses.
Ms. OLGA PEREZ: From here, you look all around, there's no market nowhere right here, nowhere right there, nowhere right there, nowhere anywhere around this area.
DEL BARCO: Unlike some other low-income neighborhoods, there's no glut of burger joints or taco trucks, not even any liquor stores selling milk and bread. Perez found out how the other half lives during a recent trip to upscale Santa Monica, where she visited a local supermarket.
Ms. PEREZ: The apples, the strawberries, the vegetables, the squash, everything. I wanted so bad to just bite the food right then and there as soon as I seen it. I almost got caught because I got a strawberry and I was going to bite it.
DEL BARCO: Perez says the one-time trip was a revelation.
DEL BARCO: It really opened my eyes. It made me see the difference of - I didn't even know there was markets out there like that. And I didn't know there was organic food. I didn't even know what that was.
DEL BARCO: Ramona Gardens is in a neighborhood that's never been able to attract a big supermarket for at least two reasons: People who live here don't have much money, and the area has a reputation for gang violence.
People here depend on a lone convenience store, where Perez says the choices are limited. The food is costly and often out of date.
Ms. PEREZ: I bought sour cream that was all green inside. I bought a gallon of orange juice that was green. As soon as I opened the lid, all the inside of the lid was green with fur, you know what I mean. And I bought Rice-a-Roni, and when I opened the box, it was maggots in there. I would get angry because it happened so many times.
DEL BARCO: Karim Raza is one of two managers for the market. They're saying that the food here is bad.
Mr. KARIM RAZA: Who? No, I don't think so. Right now, you can check: nothing. Nothing expired now.
DEL BARCO: Manager Lori Ruiz agrees the market charges more than supermarket chains, but she says they have to.
Ms. LORI RUIZ: In the big markets, they always have like a promotion and special prices because they bought for big amounts. They buy by a pallet, and we don't buy by a pallet because we don't sell that much.
DEL BARCO: Amazingly, the neighborhood has no farmer's market, just one local street vendor who brings a few fresh fruits and vegetables. But residents like Perez say he comes during the day, when they're at work. She depends on the nearest supermarket, which is a bus ride away.
(Soundbite of bus)
DEL BARCO: At the Superior grocery store, Perez explains, she has better choices but she can buy only what she can carry back home in her arms.
Ms. PEREZ: And right here, look, four for a dollar, the macaroni. That's what really kills me is when there's a special and I can't get it. I have to get one single carton, even if it costs us more because of that weight.
Ms. CHERYL RESNICK (Professor, University of Southern California): It's a tough situation.
DEL BARCO: USC professor Cheryl Resnick runs a weekly free clinic for Ramona Gardens families. She says their poor food choices are taking a toll: hypertension, early-onset diabetes and obesity.
Ms. RESNICK: I had to buy a scale that goes up to 500 pounds because we had three children come in that exceeded the 250-pound weight limit of our clinic scale. So when you have a nine-year-old who weighs 150, and when you have a 14-year-old that weighs over 250, you know you have a problem.
DEL BARCO: Now, Olga Perez and some of her neighbors are speaking out and lobbying politicians to help them get healthier food options. They won a small victory when Superior grocery store district manager Marco Sosa brought back free shuttle van rides for customers, something he dropped last year because of cost.
Mr. MARCO SOSA (District Manager, Superior): As long as they spend $40 of shopping, they'll qualify to get into the van.
DEL BARCO: Perez says the shuttle is a good thing but just a partial solution. Her goal is to have a real supermarket in Ramona Gardens. She wants something better for herself, her neighbors and her family.
Ms. PEREZ: It doesn't matter if we live in a small, low-income area. You know, we all deserve to eat the fresh fruits that nature provided for us. You know, and we shouldn't be divided.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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