Grocery stores exist as mirages in Southeastern San Diego.
In a three-minute drive down the main street of Euclid Avenue in Lincoln Park, there are three liquor stores, five taco shops and seven fast-food chains.
McDonalds, Jack in the Box and Popeyes operate a crosswalk away from one another.
There are even drive-through liquor stores.
Two supermarkets, Food for Less and Ralph’s, serve the nine neighborhood region. However, Food 4 Less fails to meet state standards and Ralph’s straddles the southernmost edge of the area, making it difficult to reach by foot for most residents.
The United States Department of Agriculture labeled Southeastern San Diego as a food desert in 2013. A food desert is a low-income community with limited access to affordable and quality produce. But in the heart of District 4, people push for change.
VIDEO: Master gardener, Charles Robinson, made the change from fast-food to eating mainly what he grows in his backyard.
Giving Southeast a new name
Across from Food 4 Less is the Tubman-Chavez Multicultural Center, where District 4 Councilwoman Myrtle Cole sat in her office and explained her plans to change the food landscape of Southeastern San Diego.
She has a vision of locals being able to dine on their doorsteps and work for better wages.
“Everybody that knows me knows that I want a ‘Gaslamp East’,” Cole said.
Cole plans to transform the Encanto section of Imperial Avenue into a corridor of locally owned, quality restaurants with urban housing on top of the buildings.
“I will not be at another opening for a fast-food place when people can make up to $24 an hour, with tips, at a local restaurant,” Cole said.
‘Gaslamp East’ would attract other districts and encourage residents to invest in their own community, Cole said.
Another problem hurting the area is that most residents spend their money in other districts. Locals say they travel outside of District 4 to do their shopping.
Lincoln Park resident Sean Donnell said he prefers to drive to the Lemon Grove Food 4 Less because he says it is cleaner than the one closer to home.
‘Southeast’ is a term that Cole wants to lay to rest. She says it casts a bad shadow over the region. That shadow has deterred quality supermarkets from setting up shop, lifelong resident Guy Preuss said.
The food situation in District 4 is an issue that is being tackled from multiple standpoints.
Cole is working on erasing the ‘southeast’ stigma, by working to bring in better companies that will provide jobs with good wages and encourage investment within the community.
Lifelong resident, Diane Moss, is working on another aspect of defeating the food desert.
Localizing the produce
Nestled between the fast-food triad on Euclid is the non-profit Moss founded in 2012,
Project New Village. Project New Village promotes community wellness in Southeastern San Diego and focuses specifically on local produce.
As a part of the project, Moss opened the area’s only farmers market in 2010 and followed up with Mount Hope Community Garden in 2011.
The farmers market is located near Food 4 Less, in a small corner at Market Creek Plaza. The event hosts roughly 12 vendors who gather to sell their goods every Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Earlajah Miller and Baylee Paredes, both 18 and residents of the district, sell produce at the market. They volunteer at the Second Chance Community Garden, which opened in 2013.
“The food we grow tastes completely different from the food at Food 4 Less,” Paredes said.
Moss would like to see more residents buy food from the farmers market. Without customers, vendors don’t make enough money to continue selling in the area.
“The farmers market isn’t where we need it to be, but we’re working on it,” Moss said.
Despite doubling the purchasing power for welfare recipients and seniors by giving out $5 coupons for every $5 spent, people still don’t seem to visit.
Moss hopes to pitch local produce to the restaurants that Cole plans to attract. She says that if the eateries purchase produce locally, farmers will have an incentive to stay in the area and provide more food for the farmers market.
Restaurants using local produce will also increase the community’s trust in locally grown food, Moss said.
Part of the reason is that some aren’t aware of the market, but others are worried that the food is not safe.
She said that people have this visual that the produce at the farmers market is grown at home, behind closed doors, so they think that the food isn’t handled appropriately.
“They don’t know that the food here is grown from certified farmers, who are held to even stricter regulations than the grocery stores,” Moss said.
More food swamp than food desert
Geographer Pascale Marcelli-Jossart is the first to conduct research on food deserts in the area.
“Southeastern San Diego is a food desert, but a more detailed analysis of food retailers in the area reveals that the neighborhood is better described as a food swamp,” Marcelli-Jossart said.
A food swamp is an area that lacks access to healthy food one can find at foodora.ca/chain/cx7rt/basil-box, but has an abundance of fast-food restaurants.
In a 24-page research report that Marcelli-Jossart released in April, she details the uneven access to quality food and higher food prices in the region.
Moss hopes to gain the favor of political leaders with the report that Marcelli-Jossart has produced. She organized a Cesar Chavez Day event to bring political leaders and activists together to share their ideas about what should be done.
VIDEO: Community residents describe their frustration with Southeastern San Diego’s food situation.
Moss is currently focused on the Healthy Food Finance Initiative that the state legislature recently passed.
The bill brings hope to Moss because the initiative allocates money to food deserts and disadvantaged farmers in California, but calls for a Food Abundance Index in the area.
The index is more in-depth than food desert research, Moss said. Food desert research considers the ratio of food outlets to population, but the index will look at the amount of food groups represented in each outlet.
The law makes it harder for liquor stores to disguise themselves as food outlets.
“Gas stations putting a basket of food next to liquor will be weeded out,” Moss said.
Moss smiled as she talked of future plans, which includes selling produce to a booming microbrewery industry.
“I think you go through some funny periods to have an appreciation for this,” Moss said. “How can you truly appreciate this if you never went through some stupid stuff?”