Healthy food is hard to come by in South L.A. These activists are changing that

Editor’s Note: This story ran as part of The Times’ Behold special photo project, which shines a spotlight on Black LA through pictures and her own words in honor of Juneteenth. To view the entire project, visit latimes.com/behold.

It starts with an Instagram DM.

There you will find Straight Up Fast Food and its range of organic smoothies and cold-pressed juices every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once you’ve chosen your drink (the Jefferson Infused Blackberry Açaí will never fail you), simply shoot a message on the side with your choice and location.

Immediately it reaches owner and founder Senter McGinest IV, who is probably at the back of 5-Star Kitchen along Vernon Avenue mixing up a batch of produce for the next customer in line. Once your potion is ready, he’ll hop on his motorbike and drive it to your door faster than you can say the word “Big Mac.”

McGinest has always been a hustler since he sold candy as an elementary school student. Years later, he’s traded high fructose corn syrup for organic fruits and vegetables, creating his own brand while expanding access to healthy food in South LA

He’s driven his motorcycle as far away as Sherman Oaks, South Gate, and Pasadena to drop off his mixed drinks (and never charged a delivery fee, no matter how far). Still, most of its customers are in south LA, where access to healthy food has historically been abysmal.

“Fast food is being forced on us in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s psychologically ingrained in us. So I thought, let’s change the meaning of that.”

The stats are everywhere. According to a 2018 Los Angeles County Health Survey, the obesity rate in South LA was 37%, compared to 28% for all of LA County. The concentration of fast-food restaurants grew so much that in 2012 the city of LA tried to ban new restaurants from establishing themselves – although loopholes in the law meant it wasn’t nearly as effective as expected.

For McGinest, however, healthy eating habits are all he knows. His father was the bodybuilder type and eliminated red meat and junk food from his son’s diet from a young age. Senter McGinest took it to the next level as he got older, going vegan for about five years (though he eventually retired).

While building a platform as a skateboarder, he began thinking about how he could use his influence to help people eat better after being inspired to focus on food justice while working for the nonprofit Community Services Unlimited to concentrate. He started posting photos of his smoothies on Instagram, and before long the DMs asking, “What’s in it?” started rolling in.

A switch flipped in his brain.

“I sold it to my close friend every day until I had a menu,” he said. “Then he bought everything on the menu. My first two clients bought everything until it grew. Now it’s like I can call her anytime, like, ‘Do you want something?'”

He officially launched the brand in 2019 and is now down 10 to 20 smoothies a day (it gets too frantic trying to do more). Perhaps the only people he values ​​more than his longtime customers are the ones who leave him — and start making the smoothies themselves.

“People will buy from me when they first learn about the smoothies and then they’ll eventually stop, but that’s because they bought a blender,” he said. “They will show me a picture of the blender and I love it. This is exactly what we talked about in the days of Timothy Leary. I want to encourage people to educate themselves about these organic fruits and vegetables and to do it themselves.”

Those who want to do it themselves can turn to Süprmarkt, the organic grocery store founded by Olympia Auset in 2016. Auset grew up in Los Angeles, and as a child she didn’t pay much attention to the state of the grocery stores in South LA

Of course, when her family made the long journey to other neighborhoods to shop, she noticed the difference: cleaner aisles, better food, a better shopping experience. But it wasn’t until she returned from her studies at Howard University that she really became aware of the breakup, prompting her to investigate the reasons behind it.

“It smelled like death walking into the grocery stores in my neighborhood,” Auset said. “As soon as you walk through the door, it just smells like old stuff. I’ve found that when something goes bad, many grocery stores ship it to other grocery stores, like the ones in the neighborhoods where I grew up.”

After becoming vegan and experiencing the benefits of healthy eating firsthand, she founded Süprmarkt in 2016 with the aim of spreading this knowledge to the community. As she set up shop at a borrowed table in Leimert Park, she saw the magnitude of the reaction; from people overjoyed they didn’t have to travel so far for their produce to others who had never seen fresh basil before.

“Once this little boy came up to us and pointed to the banana and said, ‘What is that?'” she said. “He kept looking at it, so I gave him a banana. He asked, ‘Why is it so good?’ I said, ‘Because it’s real!’”

“[He and his brother] bugged their father and he came and bought the rest of the bananas we had,” she added. “Almost a quarter box of bananas. Normally a kid will beg for cinnamon rolls or honey buns, but at least this kid knows that organic food tastes good and it’s now part of their nutritional encyclopedia.”

Now she’s turning that rickety table into the first-ever brick-and-mortar Süprmarkt store in the former home of Mr Wisdom health food store, near Crenshaw and Slauson, due to open this year. Mr. Wisdom has long been a healthy oasis in the man-made food desert of South LA, offering veggie burgers, healthy plates, wheatgrass shots, and even just a friendly ear for those wanting to change their diet.

Auset has long wanted to secure a physical store in the neighborhood. After the 2019 killing of Nipsey Hussle, she was motivated to finally take that step, and when she found out Mr. Wisdom had closed in January of that year, she knew it couldn’t be anywhere else. Süprmarkt started a fundraiser to secure the money for the building and in October 2020 they completed the building and received the keys to the kingdom.

But like so many others, the pandemic thwarted the plans. By the time they went into escrow, the world was already upside down; By the time they began construction in November 2021, prices for lumber and other commodities had already skyrocketed.

“Everybody wants to charge five times as much for everything and start quoting you crazy,” she said. “We had an offer to paint the outside of the building and someone said $60,000. It’s literally the size of a house.”

Around the same time, the demand for food rose higher than ever. Before the pandemic, they had started a subscription service, shipping about 15 boxes of fresh produce each week to households that signed up.

By March 2020, that number had shot up to 50 boxes per week. And that was just the beginning.

“We’ve scaled from a small operation to five times the work with the same facility,” she said. “We worked behind the Hot and Cool Cafe; We had a small fridge and two folding tables and shipped 75 to 100 boxes in a weekend. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking times of my life.”

Over at Project 43, a community center in Hyde Park at Crenshaw Boulevard and 71st Street, it was a similar story. On a sweltering March day, the woman known to the community as Ms. Ann sat in her tiny office, squinting at a chart of numbers that highlighted the surge in demand over the past few months.

The center does much more than distribute food; The building has podcast facilities, a computer lab that serves as a classroom, and a Giving Smiles program that offers relief supplies to women with newborns. However, as supermarkets closed and people lost their jobs during the pandemic, groceries became the most important food item.

Between July and December 2021, the center served about 5,400 people. In the three months from January to March 2022, it had already surpassed that number when 7,000 people came to them with food needs.

“This is without proper refrigeration where I have to serve the food every day,” she said. “Even at 8, 9 o’clock there is a knock. ‘MS. Ann, do you have a loaf of bread? Ms. Ann, do you have some milk?’ Sometimes I have to say no because I couldn’t save it and had to give it all away.”

Before the Wave, the woman whose birth name was Amerylus Cooper had worked days and nights to open the center. Even before she opened a shop in the building in 2019, five different contractors tried to talk her out of the mission, saying it would be too expensive and a hassle to fix the dilapidated building and improve the underfunded neighborhood.

A woman wearing a number 43 t-shirt poses for a portrait.

Community organizer Amerylus Cooperof Project 43

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

She eventually secured the lease, but found donors more difficult to find due to the reputation of the neighborhood. Instead of ducking, she went straight to the source — walking up to the drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes that stalked around the corner and letting them know what she wanted to do.

“I [told them]”I will change lives around this corner,” she recalled. “Help me to help you.”

“They stopped showing up during the day,” she continued. “But then I got the word, ‘Ms. Ann, you know they come by at night when they think you’re not around.” So I started driving by; 1am, 2am. They said, ‘Oh, this lady is serious. She’s not a cop—’ And they stopped.’

As COVID-19 came to a head, she found herself feeding the same people she had spoken to about flipping the narrative. Along with that demand, she saw people paying more careful attention to what they put into their bodies and the public health crisis inspiring many to take their health more seriously.

“The pandemic alone has enabled so many people to think outside the box,” she said. “Look how many people think outside the box when it comes to food, healthy eating and veganism. The pandemic took people to a whole different level, saying, ‘If their immune system had been stronger, maybe this person wouldn’t have died.’”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-19/healthy-food-in-south-l-a Healthy food is hard to come by in South L.A. These activists are changing that

Alley Einstein

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