Small and Diverse: The Food Businesses Leading Resilience in City Heights

Cassava root. Freshly made tortillas. Locally raised halal lamb. Cleaned and chopped nopales. Affordable bulk spices from around the world. Bok choy and collard greens. There is an impressive diversity of good food I can find a few blocks from my home in City Heights, offered at independent grocers, community gardens, and farm stands. However, in my same community, nearly a quarter of adults live in poverty, 40% of children live in impoverished households, and the food insecurity rate is more than double the county average (CHIS, 2016). Many San Diegans negotiate the rising costs of living in our region with stagnant wages, and now during the pandemic, often lost wages. Food budgets may suffer, yet we see residents rely on unique neighborhood-based assets to put food on the table. Despite, or better, in resilience to a lack of national chain supermarkets and health food stores, many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have cultivated a landscape of small cultural grocery stores and community/educational gardens with farm stands. These food assets and the people who make them thrive, business owners and shoppers, are the foundation for an inclusive, equitable, and economically viable community food environment.

Since 2016, I’ve worked with 30 small neighborhood food markets and convenience stores in high-need areas to improve access to healthy food with our Live Well Community Market Program. These family-run businesses have loyal long-time shoppers depending on them for affordable staple foods and specialty cultural foods within walking distance. My Urban Food Equity team has led market makeovers at four retailers to invest in and promote their long-term viability as good food neighborhood assets.

Urban farms are also promising in building community food resiliency. In 2017, I founded the San Diego Urban Growers’ Collaborative, partnering with 15 urban farms and gardens to investigate the barriers and opportunities for collaboration among urban growers to improve their viability and serve low-income residents and communities of color. In 2020, we awarded partner farms a total of $50,000 for walk-in refrigeration equipment to alleviate cold storage infrastructure gaps for improved harvest and aggregation capacity. Currently, I’m excited about launching our Good Food Finder, a free online directory that highlights BIPOC and women owned/operated farms and allows consumers to search for CSAs and farm stands in their neighborhoods that match their food budgets and values.

We must invest and lift up the people and places that contribute to making good food attainable for all. We must be willing to rethink the perceived limitations of square footage needed for success in grocery and acreage needed to produce food. I’m grateful to be part of a network of advocates seeking equitable and sustainable transformation in our San Diego food system.

Elle Mari is the Director of Urban Food Equity at the Center for Community Health, and leads the Urban Growers’ Collaborative. Elle focuses on creating projects that improve equitable access to good food, addressing isssues of healthy equity and racial justice. With a Master’s of Science degree in Food Systems and Society, Elle provides guidance and systems thinking across the food system.

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