When Bahni Turpin moved from Hollywood to South LA in 2010, she discovered no organic food was available in her new neighborhood’s grocery stores.

“I found that I had to go back to my old neighborhood to buy groceries and still do for the most part,” Turpin said. “And at that time, there were more grocery stores than there even are now.”

A 2020 spatial analysis found that the South LA region had only seven supermarkets — less than the area’s number of fast-food restaurants. Compare this to Hollywood, where a quick look at Google Maps shows 19 grocery stores, from Ralphs and Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods and Erewhon, where a smoothie containing sea moss retails for around $20. And Hollywood is just one neighborhood within the Central LA region.

In response to this inequality, Turpin began organizing the SoLa Food Co-op in 2011, in the hopes of creating a first-of-its-kind cooperative grocery market in South LA, a mostly Black and lower-income region of LA that has been designated by the United States Department of Agriculture as a food desert for its extreme lack of fresh food accessibility, let alone healthy food options. 

Cooperatives are common in some other US cities, but not LA. In Washington, the Central Cooperative has two stores: one in Seattle proper and one south of the city in nearby Tacoma. Puget Consumers Co-op or PCC, another cooperative in the area, has 15 locations. In New York City, there are five food co-ops in Brooklyn alone, in addition to more around Manhattan and Queens. In Minnesota, there are 10 food co-ops in the state’s biggest city, Minneapolis, and six in St. Paul. Chicago, on the other hand, has a similar issue to LA that WBEZ’s Monica Eng covered in 2018: “Why doesn’t Chicago have more Co-Op grocery stores?”

A food co-op, which is based on the cooperative business model, follows a framework in which consumers own the stores. When community members become co-op market owners, they’re effectively purchasing shares in the business. No one owner can own more shares than another, and each share comes with a vote to elect a board of directors who then make decisions for the business. In practice, this means that the co-op does not exist to serve shareholder profits like traditional grocery stores do, but to the needs of their specific communities.

Because of this lessened focus on profits, food co-ops are more environmentally friendly, pay better wages, and engage with local produce providers. In fact, a study by the National Cooperative Growers Association found that food co-ops on average work with 157 farmers and producers, compared to conventional grocery stores which average only 65 local producers. Moreover, food co-ops purchase 20% of their products from local sources compared to conventional stores which only purchase 6% of their stock locally. 

However, food co-ops are not an easy venture to organize. SoLa has not yet opened its brick-and-mortar storefront, despite having been in the works for over ten years. While Turpin began organizing SoLa Food Co-op, organizers in Pasadena founded the Arroyo Food Co-op which has since closed. In LA County, there is currently only one other operating cooperative food market: The Co-opportunity Market, which has locations in Culver City and Santa Monica. 

“I think one of the reasons that Co-opportunity really took off and lasted so long, is because [food co-ops] require a sense of community,” Michelle Jacobson, Co-opportunity Market board member said. “Santa Monica has that, whereas LA is much more diffuse.”

Founded in 1974, the Co-opportunity is a staple for the communities they serve, with a membership of over 12,000 — though you don’t have to be a member to patronize the store. Additionally, Co-opportunity currently partners with many local nonprofits and donates food to other local organizations.

Faye Mac — founder of the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI) a nonprofit that helps food co-op startups get off the ground — says that in places like South LA, where people face higher racial and economic barriers, it can be even harder to start a food co-op: even though these are the place that need food co-op markets the most. 

“It’s a very tough market. The margins are really small and it’s a complicated business to open,” Mac said. “We would love to see more co-op development in LA County. Through the process of doing so, it takes really strong community organizing, it takes business development, it costs millions of dollars to open a grocery store so there’s a lot of raising of capital. It’s a big endeavor for folks to take on”

To support aspiration food co-ops, FCI provides resources from checklists to opportunities to connect and collaborate with other food co-op founders across the nation. 

Jacobson also notes that new co-ops face a lot of financial barriers. For example, banks typically need someone on the line for a loan to open up a store, and since co-ops are owned by multiple people, it can be difficult to receive initial financing.

“When I started SoLa, I was starry-eyed and naive,” Turpin said. “I was like, ‘Yeah! In three years, we’ll have a store!’ It’s a lot of work and a lot of engagement, and it’s hard to sustain that kind of interest and focus for the time that it takes to get a store open these days. It’s a lot of moving parts, and it’s got to be just right.”

SoLa is currently in the process of selecting a site for its storefront. With a membership of nearly 700 households, the co-op has almost reached its goal of at least 1000 members needed to open the store. For South LA, Turpin wants her co-op to not only be a full service grocery store, but also a community space. 

I envision a teaching kitchen where we can have classes on food education and introduce new foods to the community. I envision the store having a deli and eat-in capability,” Turpin said. “And I envision the store being a place where we can have various community gatherings, and just really changing the amount of access that we currently have to certain types of foods.”

Since Turpin started organizing SoLa Food Co-op, fresh food options in South LA have only deteriorated. Three Ralphs supermarkets have since closed: one at the intersection of Crenshaw and Rodeo in May 2013, two months later another at the intersection of Western Ave. and MLK Blvd., and a third on the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson in May 2021, when the community arguably needed it the most. 

“It’s pretty clear that this is a neighborhood that’s mostly Black and Brown, and that speaks to systemic racism,” Turpin said. “That’s just saying that, ‘These people in this neighborhood, they can’t afford it or they don’t deserve it.’ That’s what it’s really saying: ‘We don’t care about them.’ And that was illustrated even further when the Ralphs on Slauson and Crenshaw closed in the middle of a pandemic because they didn’t want to pay hazard pay. They’re basically saying [our] community isn’t worth it.”

Amber X. Chen is a freelance journalist from Southern California whose work focuses on environmental justice.