Critics accuse Ralphs of creating 'food apartheid'

Critics call it 'food apartheid', but Ralphs says it varies what's on sale based on what customers buy.

The scheduled closure of a Ralphs grocery store, one of a chain of stores owned by the Kroger Company, has spurred accusations by some residents of South Los Angeles that the store has a history of abandoning low-income neighborhoods and fobbing off lower-quality products on them.

“We don’t believe in the concept of a food desert,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of the South Los Angeles-based Community Coalition. “Deserts occur naturally. We believe in a food apartheid. Apartheid happens because people make decisions. Human beings decide that some people are going to get the best quality meats and best quality vegetables and that other people aren’t going to get anything at all.”

Ralph’s spokesperson Kendra Doyel denies the accusations and says the company uses shopper card data to determine which stores should carry particular products. 

“You don’t have a cookie-cutter Ralphs across all of Southern California,” Doyel says. “Different people want different things in different neighborhoods. And it varies not by high-end and low-end, but truly from neighborhood to neighborhood.” 

Shoppers in the parking lot of the Ralphs grocery store in South LA that’s set to close seem unconvinced.

“The prices are higher in our neighborhood,” says Leo Chapman, who says she believes lower-end products are sold in south Los Angeles.

“They know people don’t have money, so they bring less stuff,” says Maria Dimitriou, who was there to take advantage of last-minute sales. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Recently, the USDA created a searchable map of the nation's food deserts. Here's a look at Los Angeles, green represents the city's food deserts.



About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.
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It makes perfect business sense to keep less stocks where the sales are low. If the demand for a stock is too low, why stock it at all? Whereas, if they truly are selling low standard products in certain neighborhoods, they should be prosecuted!

Thanks for sharing the information, these type of food stores are very required things for the people. In this type of store you can get many type of food items from different companies in a fixed rate, people choose these type of shops for their marketing because they got all food items from one place and you can get the baby food items from this shops.

I think what is most intriguing is the ire or disbelief that people express when confronted with the fact that there is an ACTUAL limited ability for the residents of South Los Angeles to exercise the ability to "choose" to purchase better quality food items. What is even more interesting is the scoffing at the use of the phrase "Food Apartheid," which appears to be done by those who most likely have those options available to them. No one is talking about the ability to purchase Starbucks coffee or to ensure that Food 4 Less offer organic items (which in and of itself is an oxymoron). The issue is the lack of choice and accessibility to "quality" food options in South Los Angeles. To infer that economics isn't correlative to the conditions that effect people of color is as naive as asserting that because Ralph's utilizes "Shopper Data" information they are entirely capable of determining that poor people won't buy vegetables, fruit or fresh meat. If we were to judge the"current" landscape in South Los Angeles, it appears that Ralph's data indicates an increased need for unhealthy fast food outlets and liquor stores. Choice is power...

Thanks to Marketplace for covering this very important issue. We would like to share this graphic showing the food choices between two communities in Los Angeles. http://bit.ly/Feast_or_Famine

We wish that this problem was as simple as a matter of personal choice, as some comments suggest. Unfortunately, the problem is much more complex. There are many communities where there is no choice. There are not enough quality grocery stores. People have to drive 10-15 miles away or take an hour long bus ride to get to a decent grocery store. However there are plenty of liquor stores and fast food restaurants. I would ask any of the marketplace listeners how easy would it be to make healthy food choices for your family if these were the choices you had? Even if you wanted to (and there are plenty of people in South LA who do want and can afford to purchase fresh, organic food. It is a vast and socially economically diverse community) they cannot. And that is the point. Every community should have equal access to healthy foods but they can't do that when corporations refuse to serve certain communities or sell inferior products.

Given that diet related diseases are the number one killer in the U.S. and our nation is facing an obesity epidemic across this country in urban and rural areas alike, shouldn't the question be -- how can we make fresh healthy food more accessible and affordable in our country?

I don't think everyone is getting the point of this story. It's not about which Ralphs has more organic produce. The real issue is about ACCESS and why one community has fresher produce than the other. As a resident of South LA there is no logical reason why I have to travel miles away out of my community to another Ralphs for access to variety, fresh produce and quality meat. Not everyone in South LA has the luxury to travel miles away to a grocery store like I do. Quality foods should be available to all not just a particular community. The Ralphs representative said that they don't have a "cookie cutter" model for what is in stock at each Ralphs. While I don't agree with that, what should be a "cookie cutter" model for them should be providing quality produce, meat, and healthy options for every community. There is no denying that quality grocery stores like Ralphs, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are red lining and choosing how and which communities to do business with. That's why the article is referring to this as a Food Apartheid. Because Ralphs and many other quality grocery chains are denying access to quality and healthy food choices to poor communities.

If someone suggest the lack of organic produce as a proof of some sort of "grocery apartheid" then I would suggest that person lives in a very economically insulated universe indeed.

In my neighborhood we have three Ralphs within driving distance: "Ghetto Ralphs," "the good Ralphs" (both on Lincoln) and "Marina Ralphs." (on Admiralty)

I once went looking for the healthy (and less expensive) breakfast cereal I usually get at "the good Ralphs" at my closer "ghetto Ralphs" and could not find it among the sugar-fortified (and higher-priced) cereals on the shelves. When I asked the manager, he took me to a spot in the produce section, behind a barrel of apples and underneath the produce case holding grapefruit, where the cereal I was seeking had been stashed without a sign. "This was sent to us in error, so it's just here..." he said.

No sane resident of Venice, CA, would suggest to you that the ghetto Ralphs on Lincoln was in any sense comparable to the good Ralphs on Lincoln in the Marina, or the "Marina Ralphs" on Admiralty.

We all drive to "the good Ralphs" because "ghetto Ralphs" sells inferior produce, meats, poultry, and more highly processed packaged foods.

Why doesn't Marketplace do what we've all done, take the same shopping list to all three? You'll see..within a mile or so of each other Ralphs decided that the Marina was high-end and that Venice residents should eat swill. This despite Venice's real estate at million dollar levels, because poor black and Latino people still live in Venice.

This is the type of reporting that makes me cringe for NPR. You go looking for a produce and, well, find a well stocked store.... so you say "ah, but wait, there's not enough ORGANIC produce!" Give me a break. You should have concluded that you couldn't find any evidence to corroborate those behind the allegations and left it at that. Of course you didn't even mention that the conditions of "apartheid" (which is a ridiculous term for this) could just be because, well, there isn't enough demand for organic produce in some locations... Not good reporting here.

PS. You mentioned in your story that a guard would not let you in the first Ralph's you went to? Or did I misunderstand something. Why would a guard care if you went in?

Grocery apartheid? Why are we so fast to turn a business decision into a matter of race. I lived in South Central LA for years and was surprised to find out that a Ralph's still existed there. I respect you as a journalist, but trying to portray Ralph's as this racist evil empire because the store is in an area where people don't eat sushi and buy organic produce is a bit much. This kind of stuff infuriates me because the underclass will run with this and the next thing you know Jesse Jackson will be trying to embezzle...er march on Ralph's, but that's another story. Did you notice the baby diapers in the parking lot? The homeless stealing the carts? The drug addicts waiting to rob little old ladies purses? Yeah great place to shop.


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