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Groups unite to bring more quality food to South L.A.

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — A local nonprofit organization created in the 1970s by the Black Panther Party and a recently established food cooperative are poised to give local residents more choices and easier access to high quality, affordable food.

In May, Community Services Unlimited Inc., located near USC, raised funds to make a $200,000 down payment to purchase the Paul Robeson Community Center on South Vermont Avenue.   

Now in escrow, CSU plans to renovate the 5,000 square foot building to serve as its headquarters and to operate a grocery market, an on-site commercial kitchen, an urban farm and its four major programs, which include the Village Market Place Social Enterprise. 

On June 13 in the courtyard at Community Build in Leimert Park Village, a sister organization, the South Los Angeles Food Co-op kicked off its latest membership drive and fundraiser.

Diners paid $5 for an economically priced five-star vegetarian meal prepared with produce that had not been sprayed with chemicals or genetically modified. The meal included quinoa, kale, couscous and carrots. Coconut yams, tabouli, corn on the cob and salad greens, plus ginger- rosemary-herbed lentils, sweet, plump dates, and mouth-watering desserts.

 But CSU and the SOLA co-op board members say their goals go over and above tickling the palates and providing organic food. They are selling the benefits of a good diet and individual and community good health. They plan to empower residents and raise their consciousness using food as a tool. 

Dyane Pascall, CSU’s finance director, says the groups also want to create jobs.

“The bottom line is people. We are not just selling food.

“Since 1977, we have existed in many different forms,” Pascall said, “beginning with the Panther’s breakfast programs and medical screenings. We have refocused from survival programs to using talent and building skills and sustainable communities, and making long-term changes in the system.”  

According to Pascall, the Village Market Place operates four pop-up off-site produce stands and has grown by 30 percent annually for each of the last three years. 

“We distributed more than 100,000 pounds of ‘local beyond organic’ produce and served 8,000 households in 2014, up from 90 in 2007,” he said.

According to a CSU Food Assessment Report, the nonprofit’s earlier work involved the “soda ban” victory and the subsequent passing of the Obesity Prevention Motion in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and formation and building of the Healthy School Food Coalition, the Los Angeles Food Justice Network and the California Food and Justice Coalition.

Bahni Turpin, president and board member of the South L.A. Coop, speaks to those attending the group’s membership drive fundraiser June 13 in Leimert Park. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)

Bahni Turpin, president and board member of the South L.A. Coop, speaks to those attending the group’s membership drive fundraiser June 13 in Leimert Park.
(Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)

Bahni Turpin, president and board member of the South L.A. Co-op, is the inspiration behind the cooperative, founded in 2011. Turpin remembers purchasing her house near Leimert Park in 2010 and realizing she was still returning to Hollywood, her former home, to buy food.

“I saw the great need for a health food store in South L.A. and instead of trying to lure mega corporations like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to the area, I thought a co-op would be a more empowering solution for the community,” Turpin said. “We are perfectly capable of creating together a dream store to nourish our bodies and souls.”

CSU and the co-op’s board members say they are not concerned about overlapping markets or competing with each other.  

“Rather, it is about residents having access to more choices,” Turpin said.

CSU will serve residents who live between Crenshaw, Manchester and Washington boulevards and Central Avenue. When fully established, the coop will cover a major portion of that area. Turpin said residents will not have to be a member to shop at the coop.

Pascall said the co-op may potentially source produce from CSU.  

“We support their efforts and how that materializes in the future remains to be seen,” he added.     

Ultimately, the co-op hopes to enroll 800 to 1,000 households each paying a $200 lifetime membership fee. Members will receive reduced prices, special offers and may receive discount vouchers for community service work. 

Turpin said when the group reaches 300 households, the co-op would begin searching for loans and a 6,000-square-foot storefront big enough for a classroom and teaching space, and a deli with dine-in capabilities.  

“A full-service, full-time health food store is what we are envisioning,” she added. 

As Turpin stood on the dais outlining the vision for her co-op, Pascall sold dried herbs and teas, homemade preserves and fruits and vegetables with a vine-ripened, just-picked appearance.  

Customers sat nearby, eyes closed as a masseuse applied gentle pressure to their feet, forehead, neck and shoulders. Adults and children sat quietly on a quilt making art. The fragrance of lavender and lemon grass wafted through the air.

Pascall said, “we are a model for the community. … We organize people to make change that they want to see–from the ground up.”     

The South L.A. co-op can be reached at info@solafoodcoop.com, CSU at neelam@csuinc.org.

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