In North Long Beach, liquor stores bustle. Fast food is everywhere.
But there aren’t enough full-service grocery stores, some people believe, and that limits healthy food options available.
“I have to go out of the way to Trader Joe’s in Bixby Knolls to shop for groceries,” said Renette Mazza, a North Long Beach resident. “There’s not a lot here.”
Most neighborhoods here are more than one mile from a full-service grocery store, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, with many residents trekking to Bixby Knolls or Lakewood – 7 miles away for some – to get healthy food.
North Long Beach does have current options for produce – Food 4 Less on Cherry Avenue and South Street and Big Saver Foods on Artesia Boulevard and Orange Avenue – but some residents say they are not on par with the Vons, Ralphs and other full-service grocery stores the rest of the city has.
Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents North Long Beach’s District 9, says the situation is improving. He contends there are an increasing number of stores that sell produce and other healthy food in the area, including WalMart and Target sites.
Richardson also said he’s also worked hard to get healthier food in the area in recent years, efforts that include farmer’s markets and increased nutrition education.
Some people in North Long Beach, however, say they have clamored for years for a full-service grocery store.
“This isn’t new information,” Allison Spindler, a planner and budget specialist for the city, said. “It’s something the community wants.”
And now could be their chance. The city has received a combined $1 million-plus from the California Department of Transportation and the Southern California Association of Governments to help it create a road map, called the Uptown Planning Land Use and Neighborhood Strategy. That program aims to lure new development, change zoning codes and create more open space in North Long Beach.
Last week, the city sought input from residents on the future of North Long Beach during a recent interactive public workshop.
The possibility of positive change for the community has created a buzz among residents who say they are often overlooked.
“It seems like North Long Beach has this stigma they don’t deserve – that they’re not deserving of better things,” Mazza said. “And some people will say, ‘This is no Bixby Knolls,’ but I feel like we have our own personality, and businesses just need to service us better.”
That’s what the city’s plan will try to change.
“This is the most significant planning effort North Long Beach has seen,” said Richardson, who has been the plan’s primary political champion.
Mazza, a member of the Hamilton Neighborhood Association, said getting a full-service grocery store with healthy food would help improve the area.
“There is a farmers market,” she said, “but other than that, we have an overabundance of liquor stores.”
Mazza and others feel the health of the neighborhood suffers because of this. Fast food and liquor stores are easily accessible – especially along the main thoroughfares of South Street, Orange Avenue and Atlantic Avenue – and Mazza said she regularly sees children eating junk food in her neighborhood.
“What chance do these kids have with these corridors, the way things are, without having healthy choices?” Mazza asked.
The local food options, Mazza said, has also led some of her car-less neighbors to change addresses.
“People have moved out of the neighborhood,” she said, “because they have to Uber 3 to 6 miles to a grocery store or nice place to eat.”
It is unclear, however, whether leaving North Long Beach for better food options is widespread. In fact, from 2000 to 2016, the 90805 zip code, which blankets most of the community, has seen its population grow – and at a rate double that of Long Beach as a whole; so if people are moving out en masse, there are plenty coming in.
The issue, some residents say, epitomizes the community’s lack of vital resources in other areas. One such resident, Renee Rios, said she also doesn’t believe there are enough banks or health-care centers.
“There’s a lot of development in downtown,” Rios said. “Sometimes it feels like to the residents in North Long Beach, we’re put aside when it comes to a lot of these programs or development.”
Richardson, though, pushed back on that – noting that a library is one example of recent investment in developing the community.
“Physical changes and new development is already taking place,” Richardson said.
Still, some residents are nervous. There is plenty of space to put a major grocery store – empty lots exist all over North Long Beach – but some worry the city will opt for other types of structures.
“In five years, what are they going to do with these lots?” said resident Mikkebra DeBose. “Is it going to be vacant, is it going to be apartment buildings? I really think it should be a grocery store. It should be something that’s worthwhile. If you’re going to call this ‘Uptown Long Beach,’ make us see why they call it Uptown.”
But there’s only so much the city can do.
While incentives to lure developers is a viable and, Spindler said, probable strategy, the city can’t force large grocery store chains such as Vons or Ralphs to build in North Long Beach.
All the city can do is lay the foundation that would make a move into the community worthwhile.
Spindler said the next steps for the Uptown plan are to gather more input from the community in the following months, walking the corridors and talking to more residents.
After about a year of outreach and crafting the Uptown strategy, the plan would ultimately need to be adopted by the Planning Commission and City Council, which could take another few months, Richardson said. If the city has to do a study on the environmental impacts of the plan, six more months could be added to the timeline.
And that’s before developers could even come in.
But Richardson said other projects, unrelated to the Uptown Plan, are already in the works, “like the implementation of the Open Space Master Plan and new development on Atlantic.”
“Houghton Park community center, in fact, is already well under construction,” the councilman added. “We could see projects under construction within six months.”
Spindler, who is working on the plan, added that the goal is to work with the community to build a better North Long Beach together – one that could include coffee shops, open spaces and other places to gather.
Meanwhile, the city’s Health Department has been trying other methods to get healthy food to North Long Beach, though at least one official isn’t a fan of calling North Long Beach a “food desert.”
“I usually stay away from that definition as I find it confuses people when looking at a pre-set distance of 1 mile,” said Lara Turnbull, the project coordinator for the city’s Healthy Active Long Beach Project. “And it does not take into account the actual food availability.”
Either way, the department helped bring in a farmers market and has tried to provide incentives for liquor corner stores that carry produce. It has also partnered with urban farms to host “crop swaps” – like food swap meets – and free nutrition education.
A $2 million grant from Kaiser Permanente has also boosted a coalition called Healthy North Long Beach bring nutritional food to the area.
But for families with busy schedules or limited funds, going to farmers markets, which are often more expensive than grocery stores, is not a viable solution. And not all liquor stores participate in selling produce.
At the end of the day, residents say, a large grocery store is what the neighborhood needs.
“It changes the whole perspective of that area if people drive by or visit,” Rios said. “I think having a healthy grocery store that’s clean and affordable is one of the factors that is a part of making the change in North Long Beach.”