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Mother's Nutritional Center Opens New Location As Federal Funds Keep Coming

Paresh Dave |
November 2, 2011 | 12:12 a.m. PDT


The new store in the Rite Aid shopping center along Washington Boulevard seen shortly before its grand opening on Oct. 27. (Paresh Dave / Neon Tommy)
The new store in the Rite Aid shopping center along Washington Boulevard seen shortly before its grand opening on Oct. 27. (Paresh Dave / Neon Tommy)

The grocery store just south of Downtown L.A. is not much bigger than the average college apartment. But when a customer bought enough food to need a cart, the clerk rang up the sale, pushed the cart unprompted to the customer’s car and was ready to help load the trunk.

That’s business as usual at Mother’s Nutritional Center, a small private grocery chain catering to poor families who qualify for government vouchers to buy basic staples such as milk, eggs, juice, produce, fruit and cereal.

The chain, which last week opened the new location on Washington Boulevard, stands out in the recession as one company steadily creating jobs. It's immune from market forces because nearly all of the chain's income is federal taxpayer funds funneled through a government social service program.

With Congress forced to make a 13-digit slice into the federal deficit over the next decade, will Mother’s growth be halted or even reversed?

Since first launching in 1995, Mother’s has expanded to more than 50 locations across Southern California.

Statewide, the number of stores that receive at least half of their income from a nationwide government aid program known as Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, has grown from about 650 to 900 during the past decade.

In the short-term, the outlook appears worrisome to those who follow the WIC program.

The U.S. House of Representatives wants to cut the average monthly check of $50 for more than one in 10 of the 1.5 million Californians who participate in WIC, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. During the next two weeks, House members will have to square their proposal with a Senate version that keeps the status quo.

“There’s a long history of research showing WIC-participation is critical for low-income households,” said Zoe Neuberger, the center’s food assistance expert. “We hope members of Congress will maintain their commitments to preserve stable funding for the program.”

Long-term, the outlook grows even worse as lawmakers on the Supercommittee in charge of finding a deficit reduction plan could see the $7 billion WIC program as an easy target for cuts compared to larger programs such as Medicare.

Mother’s Nutritional Center officials declined multiple requests for interviews, but offered a one-page statement describing the company’s “recipe for success.”

The chain held a job fair at the end of September for its new Washington Boulevard location. The company says it hires about 5 to 10 people per fair, or about 10 percent to 20 percent of those who apply.

“Unlike other companies hiring these days, Motherʼs is proud to say that we do not require previous job experience, nor do we require a college degree,” the statement said. “In today’s world of advanced technology, most people tend to look online for job openings, submit applications through email, and often times get discouraged that they wonʼt be able to stand out from the countless applicants that may overflow an employers inbox.”

Instead, the company posts job fair notices at its stores and interviews in-person.

Paula Harris was one of nearly two dozen people who had shown up for the September job fair by mid-morning. She explains her story in the audio slideshow below, including a regret about dropping out of high school. In the end, she wasn't one of the five people awarded a job at the new store.

The company said adding jobs “during tough economic times” is “crucial” for it to meet its mission of providing for the community and having better customer service than big-box grocery stores.

To be sure, the company has made cutbacks as it expands, saying that it had switched to energy-efficient lighting, limited air conditioning, reworked utility contracts and ordered supplies less frequently. They’ve also reduced some full-time positions to part-time ones, which the company said has at least allowed for more students to get jobs.

“We do have a small profit margin and try to make up for it in volume, in order to stay a-float,” the statement said.

Michele Y. van Eyken, chief of California’s WIC office, said no complete economic analysis of the program’s effect on the state economy had been done. But the program’s website notes, without sourcing the data, that WIC vouchers infuse as much as $90 million into the state's retail food economy each month.

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