Trusting LA British Food Invasion

fresh-and-easy-food.gifIf you’ve driven through Glassell Park in Northeast Los Angeles lately, you’ll notice a new supermarket going up. With a new parking lot and fresh paint, it looks nice. It even has a nice name; the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. After surviving the bruising supermarket strikes of a few years back, who could argue with a new supermarket with such a nice name.

Not so fast! Not having heard of Fresh & Easy, I decided to do a bit of research about the new store and found out more than I bargained for. Fresh & Easy is actually a subsidiary of Tesco. For those of you that haven’t heard of Tesco, it’s the third largest food retail company in the world after Wal-Mart. The company is in twelve countries, has 31% of the market share in Britain, with plans to open one hundred stores in the United States . Essentially, while the name of the store is Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, its not really a “Neighborhood Market” at all. It’s a multinational corporation selling food. Not necessarily bad, just not a “Neighborhood Market.”

On the face of it, who cares? Good luck to Fresh & Easy and let the free market decide if it survives. As we all know, if costumers don’t like the store, they won’t go back. Simple, right? The only problem with the philosophy is that while we have a free market system, we also have a thing called “Civil Society” that is also free to voice its concerns.

Those of us who supported supermarket workers a few years ago wanted our local stores to remain open; we just wanted workers to receive a fair wage. We wanted access to fresh fruit and vegetables at a fair price, with the understanding that those preparing the food had living wages and adequate insurance. Many of us knew we didn’t want Wal-Mart and the low wages that are associated with it.

The entire discussion about supermarkets in Los Angeles is complex. While we’re a large metropolitan city, a good amount of our urban landscape doesn’t have access to supermarkets. Many working class communities have local stores with more expensive products, which may or may not be of similar quality. For years, communities have pleaded with officials to encourage stores to open in these communities. Pandering to our hopes, Fresh & Easy has promised to do just that. Open new grocery stores in working class neighborhoods that serve fresh, organic produce at reasonable prices. While this sounds great, the company’s history doesn’t necessarily show a willingness to follow through on its promises.

According to an Occidental College report, of the 98 stores identified as future Tesco store sites, only a paltry 10% of the stores are in high poverty, low income areas. The company also plans to depend on a part time workforce and is refusing to meet with community and labor groups about fair wages. Essentially, Tesco and Fresh & Easy want the right to claim high paying jobs and quality foods in working class neighborhoods, without actually doing so.

When pressed, Tesco asks the community to trust it. No, that won’t happen, the vital services and quality of jobs this industry can provide is too important. Will Tesco trust us to pay our groceries later? Of course not.

In order to attempt to guarantee fair wages and quality food, neighborhood groups have requested Tesco meet to discus a Community Benefits Agreement. These agreements are designed to help local communities receive many of the jobs that will be offered and to make sure those jobs pay a fair wage with medical benefits and all the other good stuff. The agreements also nudge Tesco to open more stores in communities they promise to serve. It shouldn’t be a big deal for Tesco to simply sit down at the table and say, yes, I will pay a living wage, I will offer medical coverage for workers and their families, I will offer the highest quality food, and I will open supermarkets in working class neighborhoods as promised. These are statements the company has made in public, now put it in writing.

What do you think?

Should Fresh & Easy Sign a Community Benefits Agreement Before Opening?

Gabriel Buelna

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Comments

  1. Steve Lamb says

    I happen to have a friend who works as a economist for a large British publication. We’ll call him Chuck. Chuck knows I’ve been very involved here in Altadena with Lincoln Crossing and the twenty year battle to bring a first class supermarket to West Altadena (That effort having been achieved, is being undermined by the site developer, Dorn-Platz)

    Chuck knew that I saw the whole complex supermarket issue from the developer, community, market and union angles and that I had advocated a Win Win situation for all. I had even sought his advice as a non interested economist.

    Anyhow, Chuck called me up about Fresh and Easy markets and wanted to go on a market tour. So we drove around LA to several Fresh and Easy markets. It was both exciting and depressing for me.

    On the exciting part, small markets were being built. I long advocated for less than 60,000 sq ft markets having seen full service supermarkets all over Europe in the 10-12,000 Sq Ft range. So seeing a 10,000 sq ft series of markets opening was a small victory.

    Size however was where the victory ended. Prices were high compared to other local small markets (Something I have noticed is that national brand name stores have higher prices than small locals and given the economies of scale, this is illogical) Selection was OK,but the produce was just OK not really great stuff like I can get at Farm Fresh in Altadena. These are really bare bones markets and do not provide the full services that consumers even in working class neighborhoods, desire.

    Then there is the whole issue of a supermarket as a employment engine. These markets are basically run without specialty departments, meaning that every minimum wage job here is a dead end job with no advancement possible. Thats not a good thing in a depressed neighborhood. The jobs at Fresh and Easy pay lower than the chains, lower than Trader Joe’s and less than our local Altadena market Farm Fresh.

    On the economic side Tesco has figured out that having a small store, small parking lot, no services, minimal wages and no benefits, provides them with the least expensive platform from which to sell food. The extra cost of supply trucks and loading is more than offset. SO from a purely capitalistic standpoint, if Tesco can convince people to come to these stores and spend, they should export profits from America to the home office in Britian.

    All round its a deep loss for the local economy, hopefully people will stay away in droves until quality, selection and wages improve.

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