INGLEWOOD, Calif. — First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday said the campaign to bring healthy food to all Americans is happening neighborhood by neighborhood.
Standing in a vacant Southern California store set to be refurbished and reopened this summer, Obama lauded efforts to bring large grocery retailers to inner-city areas that traditional supermarket chains spurn.
"That's how we solve this problem — one community, one household at a time," Obama said, speaking in front of a display depicting an old-fashioned grocery store with crates stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. "We're not just making this generation healthy. We're making the next, and the next and the next."
Obama, who is on the second day of her two-day visit to the Los Angeles area, made the stop in the blue-collar, largely Hispanic neighborhood as part of her "Let's Move!" campaign to boost healthy food and fitness.
Part of the campaign includes promoting initiatives such as the $264 million California FreshWorks Fund, which finances grocery businesses willing to open in urban areas.
One of the fund's first projects was a $20 million loan to Anaheim-based Northgate Gonzalez Markets, which operates 34 supermarkets around Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, to build the Inglewood store and two others.
The FreshWorks Fund is one of a mushrooming number of initiatives to tackle so-called "food deserts," which are mostly urban areas where conventional supermarket chains are reluctant to operate because of the low-income customer base and safety concerns.
Nutrition experts point to food deserts as a key reason why obesity and weight-related ailments beleaguer inner-city residents, since they must buy much of their food at overpriced corner stores that sell a lot of highly processed packaged foods and snacks but little fresh produce, meat and dairy items.
The FreshWorks Fund, which is a partnership of The California Endowment, banks and health organizations, was launched last July at the White House.
Besides Northgate, other projects include financing a farmer's market near a housing project and a food delivery service for outlying rural communities, said Tina Castro, director of impact investing for The California Endowment, a Los Angeles-based foundation that focuses on health issues.
"Health really happens in neighborhoods," she said. "We're looking for those small to medium-sized, independent grocers to give them access to capital and real estate."
Northgate opened the first of the three new markets last fall in the City Heights area of San Diego. The next will be a renovation of the Inglewood building. The third will be the construction of a store in South Los Angeles, slated for completion next year. Each store creates about 120 jobs.
The locations match the company's three-decade-long focus of providing quality, affordable foods in low income neighborhoods, which primarily comprise Hispanic immigrants but also include black and Asian residents, said Carl Middleton, president of Northgate Gonzalez Real Estate Co.
"We provide that homeland experience for immigrants," Middleton said.
The stores typically offer tortilla and taco counters, as well as products from Mexico and Central America, including Coca-Cola made in Mexico, as well as fresh produce, meats, seafood, dairy and bakeries. It also caters to its immigrant customers by providing payroll check cashing and wire transfers.
Part of the company's mission has been to promote nutrition by providing lean cuts of meat, preservative-free baked products and good quality fruits and vegetables, Middleton said.
The chain has launched a "Viva la Salud" (Long Live Health) campaign, which puts a special tag to denote healthy foods, such as olive oil rather than lard, and holds cooking classes in stores.
The company was founded by Mexican immigrant Miguel Gonzalez in 1980, who came to the United States after his shoe store burned down in Jalisco.
After working for several years in various jobs, he had saved enough to buy an old liquor store in Anaheim and convert it to a grocery store that became a community gathering spot, recalled his youngest son Oscar Gonzalez, who heads the company.
Seeing a niche in catering to fellow immigrants, he expanded the business with the help of his 13 children. It now employs 5,000 people.
Obama said she was impressed by the family's commitment to the communities they serve. "Their story is so inspiring on so many different levels," she said.
After the Inglewood event, Obama was scheduled to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and to deliver a luncheon speech at the Democratic National Committee.
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