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Food 4 Less: A Place of Community and a Place of Reckoning

I was introduced to Food 4 Less, a discount grocery store unique to California, on my second day in Los Angeles. I had spent my first night at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital’s ER following a stroke of bad luck that had left me with a foot laceration. It had also left me with a sense that Los Angeles was rejecting me upon arrival. Day 2 meant groceries were in order. Unfortunately, my crutches meant that my mobility was limited, and I relied on my housemates to bring me to Food 4 Less.

I should mention that we live in Watts, a community made famous by 1965’s Watts Riots. Resources are scare, incomes are low, and violence rates are high. Latino and African American folks constitute the majority of Watts’ residents. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first grocery store venture, considering my general unease with invading a marginalized community with my privilege—social mobility, whiteness, education, citizenship status—the list goes on. I expected to be met with cold stares, prickly demeanors, and a sense of distrust. I wouldn’t blame them. What’s this white girl doing at a Food 4 Less in Inglewood?

Given my temporary lack of mobility on day 2 of Los Angeles living, I traversed the store in one of those electronic shopping scooters, which made me stand out even more. The scooter beeped loudly when I reversed, and my crutches stuck out awkwardly from the front basket. I was mortified, and people stared. However, the stares weren’t cold, just inquisitive. I found myself in a traffic jam in which my scooter was wedged between two families trying to cross the aisle. A jovial man saw my embarrassment as I tried to k-turn out of the lane and yelled after me something along the lines of, “Look at you go! Let me know if anyone gives you hard time.” We laughed and I scooted away.

My trips to Food 4 Less have been marked by these sorts of friendly, good-natured encounters. Today, a man kindly pointed out that the shoelace on my left boot was untied. A few weeks ago, I held up a package of pizza dough and quietly wondered aloud how long it might last. A shopper, passing by at that moment, quickly answered, “about two weeks,” and kept walking without missing a beat. These moments, along with many others, have brought a smile to my face. There’s a real sense of community and openness at Food 4 Less. I grew up in New Jersey, and people minded their own business at Shoprite. Few smiles or pleasantries were exchanged. Shoppers stayed in their own personal bubbles, intently focused on their purchases and the day ahead.

While the encounters mentioned above made me smile, one encounter in particular rocked me to my core and felt like a great reckoning. I struggle with writing these words, as this encounter was both deeply touching and mortifying. Even as I write this, I want to cry from a mix of frustration and gratitude. However, I vowed that I would share this story with others, with the hope of starting to unravel some of the myths we unintentionally hold close when we talk about low income communities.

About a month ago, I visited Food 4 Less with one of my housemates. I was still adjusting to life in Los Angeles and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was rushing from day to day, mind constantly racing and fear of failure high. As we finished checking out, a security guard came up to our cashier with a set of keys that had been turned in. My heart immediately plummeted to my stomach, as if on command. Something in my gut told me that those were my keys. She turned around, and to my utter chagrin and panic, I recognized the purple coiled wristband of my Toyota Corolla keys.

My thoughts raced out of control and I felt my face flush a deep scarlet. My hands shook and my heart raced as I told her that those were my keys. In a blur, she quickly relayed to me that a woman had found them in my car door and that she had waited by my car to protect it for an hour. When I was nowhere to be found, she decided to turn them into Food 4 Less, and left a note on my car. The guard told me that if we ran, we might be able to thank the angel in question. I ran after her, and we came upon a middle-aged African American woman with red hair. As soon as I saw her, I was overcome with a humbling sense of gratitude and awe. Voice shaking, I asked if I could hug her. She obliged, and we embraced. I gushed, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She calmly told me that she saw my keys in the door and felt sorry for me, knowing what it’s like to make a costly mistake when you’re in a rush. She stayed with my car, hoping that someone would do the same for her if she were in that situation.

I was floored and profoundly moved by her selfless generosity. She didn’t know me or my situation, but she felt a call to help me. I punished myself the entire ride home and for weeks after, thinking about how that situation could’ve ended disastrously. Furthermore, the Corolla isn’t even “my” car. The shelter is graciously loaning it to me for the year, making the potential ramifications of this situation even more anxiety producing.

Responsibility is at the core of my values, and I try my best to be timely, diligent, and methodical. This was truly out of character, but it was a wake up call. I needed to SLOW DOWN. I needed to practice patience with myself. I needed to prioritize safety and sanity. This experience was a painful reckoning, but it also brought me joy and a renewed sense of faith in humanity. More than anything, it gave me a concrete story to bust some of the most dangerous myths about low income communities—myths that say that desperation always leads to people taking advantage of situations and looking out for their own interests.

These myths are rooted in some form of reality, but they are also rooted in fear and ignorance. Yes there is violence and crime, but there is also great compassion, love, and openness. The violence and crime stem from systemic oppression rooted in racist systems—from a broken immigration system and the Prison Industrial Complex to police brutality and underfunded schools. More often than not, people want to help, connect, and do good. Let’s not forget that. I will always remember the woman at Food 4 Less, and I will keep her note as a reminder of miracles. Written by, Shannon Mahedy Los Angeles Community '18-'19

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