City Heights: A food desert?

Murphy’s Market on Fairmount Avenue is not nearly as large as an Alberstons or Vons, but it is packed with fresh produce, dry goods and other groceries.

Murphy’s Market on Fairmount Avenue is not nearly as large as an Alberstons or Vons, but it is packed with fresh produce, dry goods and other groceries.

Don’t tell Mark Kassab that City Heights is a food desert.

“I have close to 200 items of produce,” Kassab said of Murphy’s Market, a 9,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store he owns on Fairmount Avenue. “We have all kinds of fresh meat, a bakery, whatever you need. And there are a lot of mom-and-pop stores in City Heights. I don’t know where this ‘food desert’ talk comes from. Look around. This doesn’t look like a desert to me.”

With the recent closing of the Albertsons store at the City Heights Urban Village a few blocks north of Murphy’s Market, attention again is being focused on the availability of full-service grocery stores in the neighborhood. And there are a variety of opinions.

“There are seven quality food distribution places in City Heights, but that’s not enough,” longtime City Heights resident Jeanette Neeley recently told KPBS. “We need more for the size of the community.”

Neeley has an advocate in City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, whose district includes City Heights.

“Consumers in lower-income neighborhoods like City Heights already have limited options for fresh foods and health services,” Emerald said after Albertsons announced its plans. “Most City Heights residents don’t have cars to drive to large competitively priced grocery stores in other neighborhoods. This will pull the rug from under consumers who already struggle to get healthy foods and medicine.”

The federal government describes a food desert as “a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture adds: “Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

But is that the case in City Heights? According to the USDA, that depends on where you live. Some pockets have an abundance of options. Others? Not so much.

The nonprofit Social Compact published a 2011 report entitled “City Heights Grocery Gap,” which found that the seven full-service grocers (defined as stores with 10,000 plus square feet of floor space) in a study area that included El Cerrito and parts of Oak Park provided an average of 1.64 square feet of grocery retail space per person, compared with the industry standard of 3 square feet of grocery retail space per person. It also found that roughly one-third of City Heights residents live in “critical food access areas.”

Such studies do not factor in how densely populated City Heights is, the amount of food available in the grocery store (only the size of the floor space), or do they take into account the smaller grocery stores that dominate the City Heights landscape. And when people talk about a lack of full-service grocers in City Heights, they often forget about independent venues such as Super Mercado Murphy’s on University Avenue and Pancho Villa Farmer’s Market on El Cajon Boulevard.

“Produce is usually 200% cheaper than Albertsons and anywhere from 100-150% cheaper than Sprouts,” states one recent post about Pancho Villa’s on the review website Yelp.

Reviews for Murphy’s are just as impressive. “A little cheaper than Food for Less with quality marks higher. The workers there are the nicest people in the world, offering you free samples of things you look interested in,” one wrote.

“They have a huge fresh meat selection (marinated or not) for great prices,” wrote another.

Also often omitted from the conversation is the bevy of Asian grocers, including Minh Huong Super Market on University Avenue or Alpha Mini-Mart and Hing Long Oriental Food Market on El Cajon Boulevard, or Sin Lee Food Whole Sale across the street from Hing Long.

Such stores are a critical ingredient in local culinary tastes; City Heights is home to one of the region’s most densely populated Vietnamese communities, and the City Council recently designated a section of El Cajon Boulevard as San Diego’s “Little Saigon Cultural and Commercial District.”

A 24-year-old, UC Davis graduate who recently moved to the area said he takes umbrage at the classification of his new neighborhood as a food desert.

“When I go around City Heights, it seems that every few blocks there’s a small Aztec market selling fresh food,” he said.

Andrei Radulescu is not convinced. He and his wife moved almost three years ago to City Heights from North Park, where Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, and Fresh & Easy were just a short bicycle ride away. With the City Heights Albertsons closing its doors, Radulescu doesn’t have such options here.

“It’s going to make it more difficult to buy groceries,” he said. “And it’s going to create a big hole in a nice shopping center. It’s disappointing.”

Radulescu and others say the abundance of smaller stores – Gabriel’s Market, Shingani (halal) Market and La Favorita Super Mercado all sit within a couple of blocks of each other on University Avenue – do not offer the full range of goods that a Ralphs or Food 4 Less does.

But a 2011 survey conducted by LISC MetroEdge, focusing on the area from University Avenue north to Monroe Avenue, had a different take. It concluded: “There are multiple convenience and ethnic customer markets within City Heights.” It referred to this part of City Heights as a “food oasis with over $50 million in food dollars coming into the community which when added to demand from residents suggest over $100 million annually in food shopping.”

The conclusion on whether City Heights is a food desert really boils down to how you want to define it. City Heights has a shortage of large footprint, chain grocers but also has an abundance of smaller neighborhood markets that offer ethnically appropriate foods that may be missing from larger chain stores’ shelves. Access to produce is also bolstered by the Urban Village Farmer’s Market every Saturday and the many non-licensed vendors who sell from carts and vehicles.

As of the writing of this article, a new replacement for Albertsons has not been announced but when it is, it will surely begin a new round of community discussion.