How One Woman Turned A Food Desert Into A Food Oasis

Allison Sanchez

I’m in a brightly lit grocery store in Hyde Park, a southside Los Angeles neighborhood, waiting to start an interview. The long, retro-looking table in front of me would fit nicely at any West Hollywood farm-to-fork restaurant. Behind me are drawings by neighborhood kids. Another wall features a chic bookcase with hanging plants. All around are little splashes of color — bananas, watermelon, kale — mixed in with the standard store staples.

It’s stylish yet unpretentious; cozy yet sleek. I hit record on my computer.

“Oh sorry, hold on!” Kelli Jackson says.

The door has opened an older man walks in. Kelli greets him by name and steps behind the counter. She readies his order before he asks. This happens a few more times during our conversation. The woman knows her customers and wants them to feel welcome, a scarcity in a city as large as LA. Speaking personally, I can tell you one neighbor’s name on a block of maybe 50 residents. Kelli’s not like that. Hank’s Mini Market is a small store and Jackson strives to promote the feeling that everyone’s family.

It’s a tradition that started in her actual family. Her dad owned the store before her.

“I learned that from my parents,” Kelli says. “They just were very caring and took the time to get to know people.”

When someone came up short one month, Kelli’s dad, Hank, would let them use credit. It wasn’t just a gesture of good faith, it was a way to let folks know someone believed in them. Kelli is the same way, she believes passionately in the residents of her neighborhood. It’s why she took over the store in her underserved community. Why she put the work and money into renovating and transforming it. Why she stocks fruits and veggies that were previously hard to find in this food desert. She believed that it could be something more and that the neighborhood deserved that.

“It’s this whole idea of legacy,” Kelli tells me. “It’s building upon the understanding that for the next generation, it doesn’t have to look the same. But it’s all connected, too.”

Hank’s Mini Market — with its healthy, locally sourced ingredients — may look different from the little liquor and convenience store Kelli’s father used to run, but it’s still her family’s spot. And for the neighborhood that means something. It means the next generation is investing in them.

Not that there weren’t a lot of wide-eyed looks when people stepped inside for the first time post-renovation. Locals saw the changes and expected some slick corporate owners. Kelli shakes her head at this thought. She told everyone that she wasn’t letting the store go, just that she was going to make it better. But the residents of Hyde Park are used to promises going unkept.

“I think in this neighborhood… a lot of things are said and started but never finished,” she says. “A year ago, where Hank’s is now, I would have not imagined that. It’s taken on a whole life of its own.”

Growing up, Kelli spent a lot of time at Hank’s, helping her father. After high school, she went to USC, got a masters in public art studies and studied African American history. As her life expanded — experiencing art, culture, and food around the rest of the city — coming back home for a weekend became a stark reminder that not all people enjoy equal opportunities.

“Growing up here, seeing the kids go from babies to teenagers, and seeing the things that they were getting into…there weren’t enough safe spaces,” she says. “And there wasn’t enough access to art or other things to take them away from this tough neighborhood and the things that were going on — gangs, drugs — they just didn’t have other options.”

Kelli felt like she was raised with great role models and felt disheartened that many of her peers and the generation of kids below her weren’t getting that.

“I wasn’t seeing a lot of investment and not a lot things were changing,” she says.

It brought up a big question. Why weren’t things getting better around her neighborhood when other parts of the city seemed to be thriving? Why did she have to travel so far away to have fun or access to art? Weren’t they just as deserving?

“That’s where it really started,” she says.

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“Some people thought that it was not going to be the same people owning the store,” Jackson said. “They thought that somebody else came in and took over, and was going to create a different space. But when they see that our family is still here then they take more pride in this market. Some people say that this place is too nice to be over here. But it's not.  It's exactly what we should have. We don't have enough of this. We deserve more, and we deserve this.” #Repost @la_standard_newspaper ・・・ Hank’s Mini Market becomes the store that South L.A. deserves No longer a typical liquor store, Hank’s in Hyde Park now features fresh food and is a community center. Kelli Jackson believes that visions can come to life when people work together. Her “stronger together” attitude led her to community organizations and members, such as the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, sweetgreen, and California FreshWorks, who helped brighten up her family's store. Photo by Jason Lewis Click the link in the bio and visit the Health section to read this story. #health #healthyfood #healthyeating #blackhealth #fooddesert #freshfood #blackexcellence #blackbusiness #blackbusinesses #losangelesbusiness #labusiness #lasmallbusiness #laderaheights #leimertpark #leimertparkvillage #baldwinhills #viewpark #windsorhills #westadams #crenshaw #parkmesaheights #southlosangeles

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In 2014, Kelli went to a focus group about incorporating healthier foods into locally-owned corner markets — like the one her dad owned — and something clicked. Her neighborhood didn’t even have the same opportunities for grocery stores. How could she concentrate solely on arts access when people didn’t have places to get healthy food? She wanted to know more so she went to a conference put on by the L.A. Food Policy Council, an organization dedicated to making sure everyone has access to food that is healthy, fair, affordable, and sustainable. There, she met Clare Fox who shared the story of another local market, Alba’s Snacks & Services, that they’d recently remodeled and rebranded. What struck Kelli is how they kept his vision intact and the needs of the community in mind.

“We became soul bonded,” Clare says of her first meeting with Kelli. “We both got teary-eyed, and it was just really clear that she had a profound story and gift to give to the world. She expressed some hesitance about the healthy food aspect… wondering what could even be possible. But the conversation we had was just like, ‘Just don’t worry about healthy food. That comes later. What is most important is you powerfully actualizing in your store, in your business, and in your community.’ ”

At the same time, Hank Jackson was ready to retire. All the signs seemed to point in the same direction.

“I was afraid to try to do something new because everything was all the same,” she says. “That’s all I knew and there wasn’t anything else for me to build off of. It wasn’t until I found my team — from the LA Food Policy Council and the LA Market Network — that I started to feel confident about the direction that I wanted to take.”

With Clare’s help, Kelli was connected to fast-casual restaurant sweetgreen, which was actively looking for a community-oriented health project. At the time, they were meeting with a number of store owners to pick a place to work with.

‘”Then they met Kelly, and it was kind of like the heavens opened up and it was all hearts and rainbows,” Clare says smiling. “The played an important role in this. Ellyn from sweetgreen was like ‘Oh yeah, this is game on.’”

Wanting a real partnership that didn’t just involve cutting a check, sweetgreen offered graphic design help, brand developers, supply experts etc. Both Sweet Green and L.A. Food Policy Council share a similar philosophy. They wanted to promote healthy foods, but to do that they had to help make locally owned and community-rooted businesses sustainable.

“That is critical to addressing disparities in food access or disparities in health outcomes,” Clare tells me. “Because if that economic and community foundation is not strong, then there is no way we can really address issues of access to healthy food.”

Allison Sanchez

Kelli and Clare

There’s a chain of things that are intricately connected in making a neighborhood more prosperous without taking that prosperity away from its actual residents. For instance, Kelli wants to bring art to her community but she can’t do that without investing in them and their immediate needs, in helping them get the foods they deserve in order to live healthier lives. And she can’t get her neighbors what they need to be healthier if her business can’t sustain itself. You can’t treat the parts without seeing the whole.

It’s that connection her dad taught her. In fact, this philosophy inspired the store’s motto: Stronger together.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” she says. “I think that’s the power of this transformation project — that it’s a reflection of the community having hard times and having the faith to move forward through it. That’s the story of our community. That was the story of Hank’s.”

Hanks Mini Market Via Facebook
Hank’s motto: Stronger Together

In many ways, Hank’s Mini Market is different today than it was one generation ago. There are more veggies and healthier options and it’s taken on Kelli’s artsy, hip aesthetic. But she listens to what the community wants, too. She still sells liquor and lottery tickets and she tries to match the healthier things to what people like and are willing to try.

“I ask my customers ‘What are you looking for? What do you want? Do you like that?’ ” she says. “Or especially with our produce now, I will ask our customers, ‘Did you like that watermelon?’ And then they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it was really good.’ So I know that’s a great farmer for me to continue to source food from because people responded. So, it’s having that kind of conversation…I think I know, but I shouldn’t assume. I should ask.”

As Kelli helps residents have access to healthier food, she’s also concentrating on making Hank’s a gathering place in the area — a safe space for kids and adults to hang out. She has a big friendly community space in the back to chat, eat, work on art projects, or learn during one of their regular events.

“Through music, art, and food we start having conversations about healing, uplifting, and pushing forward to healthier lifestyles and healthier ways of living,” she says. “That’s what we’re doing with this community space. Using it for the community and bringing in artists that don’t have spaces in south L.A. to be highlighted.”

While Kelli incorporates the more traditional arts into Hank’s, she’s also started thinking about the whole store as an ever-changing performance piece.

“How we are using Hank’s as this corner store and re-imagining it….it’s one concept of bringing art to the community,” she explains. “This is a canvas in itself. Like a participatory art. People are coming and are re-imagining what a corner store can be, and it helps people question, what can they start pushing and demanding the corner stores to be in their communities?”

That’s what Kelli hopes most — to show people that their dreams are possible. Little girls come into the store and learn that Kelli, a black woman from their neighborhood, own it, and their eyes light up. She hopes that kind of momentum reaches the whole neighborhood, that Hank’s is a spark that catches.

“Hopefully that inspires people in their journey,” she says. “That they too can have faith, and find the right people, and find their way back to a better lifestyle, a healthier lifestyle. And follow their dreams to reality. Just like we were able to do.”

She wants her neighbors to see that — like a little liquor store on the corner that you wouldn’t give a second glance to — the beauty and potential in their community is already there.

“This is so much more than just about food,” Clare Fox says. “This is about community development and transformation, and community healing on a grander scale.”

Recently, the neighborhood council gave Hank’s an award for their work. Kelli gave it to her Dad, who started the store decades ago.

“He created this platform,” Kelli tells me, a few tears sliding down her cheeks. “It’s only because of him and the hard work that my parents did that we’re even here today. I just really felt like that was a great celebratory moment to end our twenty-one years. That process of the transformation was in twenty years. So that’s two decades. That was a pretty cool way to close out that part.”

You can visit Hank’s Mini Market at 3301 W Florence Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90043 or visit their facebook page for how to support them. And to support La Food Policy Council’s commitment to help Kelli and many other local businesses in L.A. — visit their website.