Community Services Unlimited Set to Launch Organic Market in South L.A.

Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU's urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU’s urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When talking with neighbors along south Vermont Ave. a few weeks ago about the potential redevelopment of the lots at Manchester, the amenity residents were most excited about was the arrival of a grocery store.

Having something within walking distance was one reason — most of the folks I spoke with struggled with finding transportation to get to the store and lacked the means to be able to stock up on groceries in bulk when they did make the trip. But the other reason was that they felt the nearest grocery stores tended to have poor produce on offer for unreasonably high prices. So much so that, when they had the opportunity, many would travel miles away to more well-to-do neighborhoods just to have access to better options.

That reality is just part of what will make Community Services Unlimited‘s (CSU) new venture such a welcome addition to the community.

The long-standing South L.A. food-justice organization recently put down an offer on the Paul Robeson Center building and, in line with their motto, “Serving the people, body and soul,” are looking to convert the historic space into a model of sustainability and a health hub for the community.

This weekend’s party/fundraiser is part of their effort to raise funds to cover the down payment and costs of building out the first floor of the building, according to Executive Director Neelam Sharma. Plans for the first phase include a grocery market space to sell organic produce, herbs, jams, and their line of Beyond Organic products, and a kitchen where they can prepare their produce bags and host cooking demonstrations.

Attendees at CSU's Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Attendees at CSU’s Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Other plans for the site include an urban farm (where they can continue offering free gardening workshops), solar panels on the roof, a rooftop garden, a community space to be activated with daily health and wellness activities, offices and a gathering space for the youth from their From the Ground Up internship program, a few rooms that could potentially be set aside to serve as shelter for youth in need of a temporary space to stay, and a café.

Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

It’s a lot for such a small organization to take on — although they have recently grown to 12 staff members, they have largely shied away from courting big funders and have been steadily moving towards a self-sustaining model for some time.

But they never seem to have been hampered by their size or financial constraints. They offer regular (and free) Garden Gateway workshops during the growing season, worked with South L.A. schools to incorporate (and teach) gardening workshops as part of the curricula, organized community-wide Earth Day celebrations, mentor at-risk high school youth as paid interns in farming, gardening, entrepreneurial skills, and leadership development, make produce deliveries via bike to subscribers and a few local corner markets, and even hosted 150 food-justice youth advocates from around the country for the annual Rooted in Community youth conference in 2013.

Riders on the healthy food tour gather in front of Mama's Chicken, a corner market that has undergone a conversion and now features some produce provided by CSU. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Riders on the healthy food tour gather in front of Mama’s Chicken, a corner market that has undergone a conversion and now features some produce provided by CSU. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The search for a permanent space in South L.A. had been underway for some time, Sharma says. They have had an urban farm on Bill Robertson Ln. (Expo Center) for years, hosted weekly produce stands at several locations, and had (until recently) a market stand inside Mercado la Paloma.

Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce at St. John's every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce at St. John’s every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

More recently, they worked out of a temporary space in a local church, but knew they would ultimately have to purchase their own space if they were to grow in the direction they were hoping.

Although the new site — located at 6569 S. Vermont Ave. — is farther south than they have tended to work in the past, it is an area of significant need and one that has a shortage of healthy options.

Neena, a former intern with CSU, stands in front of the garden boxes CSU set up at a school on Normandie Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Neena, a former intern with CSU, stands in front of the garden boxes CSU set up at a school on Normandie Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Sales from their produce stands and produce bag service have grown steadily and comprised a quarter of their annual income last year. A confirmation, Sharma believes, that there is a demand for good, healthy, quality produce in the area and that the time for “the first community-owned and [community]-run organic market in South L.A.” has arrived.

As always, however, CSU will be looking to do more than just feed people good food.

In the past, Sharma has said, conquerors would work to subjugate populations by alienating them from the land, just as they tried to change their language, culture, and religion. For this reason, a core element of CSU’s approach has entailed teaching residents from South L.A. about the cultural heritage of their own ancestors as it relates to food and agriculture — even bringing back some of the native plants (and recipes) that indigenous communities relied on. Reconnecting residents to both the earth and the heritage that lies beneath the asphalt, CSU believes, will also help them forge stronger bonds with each other.

As the issues facing South L.A. are complex and deeply systemic, Sharma has said of CSU’s multi-faceted approach to health and justice, effectively tackling such problems requires system-oriented solutions. Hence their excitement over the possibilities offered by the opportunity to find a permanent home and build community around it.

But that also doesn’t mean you can’t start simple. At the most basic level, Sharma has said, it makes sense to engage communities through food.

“We can’t educate kids that aren’t nourished.”

If you’d like to see their plans for the space and support their effort to bring fresh, healthy options to the South Vermont corridor, check out their pre-launch party at the Paul Robeson Center this Saturday, May 30. Festivities begin at 4 p.m. More details can be found here. If you’d like to donate to their campaign, please visit their fundraising page, here.

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