When one first hears the word “co-op,” the mind strays back to communes of the hippy era, where members collectively shared work, income, property and lifestyles.

Bahni Turpin of SoLA Food Co-Op wants to take that idea beyond the old stereotype and, with the help of a board of directors and the South Los Angeles community, create a cooperative grocery store venture owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services.

Looking to open the doors of its first store within the next two years, SoLA intends to provide South LA and neighboring communities with access to fresh, economical, organic and healthy foods. 

“By 2023 would be great,” Turpin said. “It would depend on the site and if the site is ready by then. A lot has to do with the pandemic.”

SoLA Food Co-Op had an informational booth at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Farmers Market for three years before the pandemic struck. The group sold bulk organic greens and beans as a way to interface with the public about the venture and have something tangible to share.

Now, the organization and its 13-member board of directors is revving up a capital campaign as well as a membership drive. 

The goal is to reach 1200 owner-members and open a store to fill the food void in the area. 

Portions of South LA have long included federally recognized food deserts, with more availability of fast food than organic, natural and clean conventional foods. The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service has a new term for the deserts as of 2013  — “low income and low access areas.” 

To see its overview of food access indicators by census tract, go to https://tinyurl.com/2p92sevp.

The USDA atlas (formerly named “the food desert locator”) does not count club stores, smaller grocers, drug stores or neighborhood convenience stores in its survey of access to affordable and nutritious foods. 

As a result of reduced access to fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at local grocery stores and supermarkets within walking-distance, the South LA community suffers from a higher rate of food-related illness than other parts of Los Angeles. 

“Three stores have closed since I moved here, three Ralphs. We have very few options here,” Turpin said. “It’s just baffling to me how this kind of racism continues, the systemic under-serving of Black and Brown communities.”   

The stores she mentioned were once located at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard  and Western Avenue; Crenshaw and Obama boulevards; and Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue.

“Ralphs has shown you in no uncertain terms they don’t care about you or your community,” Turpin said, citing the latest closure on Slauson Avenue. “They left in the middle of a pandemic when they knew they were already in an area where there are no grocery stores. They care about their bottom line.” 

Turpin is SoLA Food Co-op’s founder and original visionary. She is an actress, award-winning audiobook narrator, and yoga teacher. Her move to South LA in 2010 brought on her quest for better food accessibility for the area, and her vision of a natural foods co-op.

“Co-ops are not profit-driven companies like most companies in America,” Turpin said. “Co-ops exist to serve the people who use them. It’s not just about making a profit, we want to serve a need. That’s why we are here.”

Turpin was born and raised in Michigan and moved to LA from New York City in 1994. After living in Hollywood and then in mid-city for nearly 17 years, she purchased a home on 43rd Street, not far from where some of her relatives settled after migrating from Kansas in the ‘40s.

“I remember visiting my great aunt as a child and being told that if I woke up early (I was from an east coast time zone) to just go out in the backyard and play,” Turpin said. “Well that backyard was only about five blocks from where I now live! It’s funny how you get called to a place. I didn’t realize when I bought the house how close it was to aunt Bernice’s place. I remember visiting Leimert Park as a kid too. That was where my aunts got their hair done.”

The total SoLA Food Co-op vision includes health education, job opportunities, shared economic benefits and organic foods. It is all designed to lead to a revitalized community. 

The SoLA Food Co-op board and owners formed a nonprofit last year. “Food Education, Economic Development in South LA” (FEEDSoLA), which entails creating  additional workshops and classes. The owners involved in this 501 c 3, are currently meeting with a consultant to revise the organization’s business plan.

When the Slauson Avenue Ralph’s grocery closed on May 15, 2021, Turpin was barraged with calls from supporters who felt that this would be a prime location for the SoLA Food Co-op.

“Ralphs is huge and that’s a major concern,” Turpin said. “They are going to break up the space and it was too difficult to get what we wanted.”

She mentioned that in addition to a refrigerated area, the co-op would need a certain amount of space and access to the loading dock. 

 “There are certain developments going on, up and down Crenshaw. There are some proposals for development that we’ve been in on. There’s some exciting stuff in the works,” Turpin said.

The co-op owners are anxiously looking forward to pre-construction and preparing for a grand opening of their vision.

For more information, visit solafoodcoop.com.

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