For the Love of People January 15, 2024

Tiffany Haddish hopes to deliver food and culinary education to South LA

At the age of 9, Tiffany Haddish started handling the grocery shopping and cooking for her household. The oldest of five siblings, the Landscape with Invisible Hand star and author of The Last Black Unicorn was responsible for feeding her whole family—relying on food stamps and help from the local community to meet the barest necessities. It was 1988, her father was out of the house, a car accident had just left her mother with severe brain damage, and Haddish had yet to master reading.

“At the store, I would say to the clerks, ‘My name is Tiffany, what’s yours? Nice to meet you, can you tell me how much ground beef I need to feed six people?’” she remembers. After paying for the food, she would take it home with her in the store’s shopping cart, pushing it through the streets of South LA. “I couldn’t carry everything back by myself, so this was a fun adventure!”

At home, the adventure continued: She enlisted her siblings to play “grocery store” with her, pretending to be clerks restocking shelves; this was followed by a game of “chef,” in which each sibling chipped in to cook the family’s meal. Haddish, who had watched her mother work the kitchen before the accident, was gifted at concocting recipes. Afterward, the siblings would be “paid” for their work with Monopoly money.

All of this was happening just a few miles south of Hollywood, where Haddish spent a decade establishing herself in the comedy and TV worlds before rocketing to fame with the 2017 hit comedy Girls Trip. “It was super fun for me, but honestly, making sure my sisters and brothers were eating was part of what kept me off the streets,” she says. The award-winning comedian finds light in any situation, but the vein of struggle that coursed through her childhood is not lost on her. Systemic racism continues to plague South LA through the legacy of redlining, a government practice started in the 1930s which directed investment away from communities of color. While prohibited after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the drain on resources can still be seen in different forms. For example, many of these neighborhoods lack access to fresh food, as grocery chains close their stores in lower-income areas for fear of losing profitability—a phenomenon known as “supermarket redlining.”

Haddish lives in South LA today, so the star has seen these changes take place in real time. The grocery stores she frequented as a child have shuttered, while fast food options have proliferated. Compare the neighborhood to the more affluent West LA, for instance: One study conducted at the University of Southern California indicated that there were 60 full-service grocery stores serving South LA’s 1.3 million residents in 2003, while West LA had 57 stores serving 651,000 people. In other words, per capita, West LA has nearly double the number of grocery stores for its population than South LA does. On top of that, only 75% of stores in South LA serve fresh produce compared with 90% in West LA. Unfortunately, little has changed since—South LA remains a food desert.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find actual fresh food,” Haddish says. “You bite into an apple, and it doesn’t taste like an apple. So, I started asking ‘Where is the real food? What’s going on here?’”

“It’s getting harder and harder to find actual fresh food,” Haddish says. “You bite into an apple, and it doesn’t taste like an apple. So, I started asking ‘Where is the real food? What’s going on here?’” The damaging effects of redlining extend beyond access to fresh food; they also hurt income, health, and education equality. In South LA, which is predominantly Latino and Black, most residents have no more than a high school degree or equivalent. The average household income in 2020 was $40,800, which is barely above the poverty level for a family of six. Combined with the fact that home economics classes have all but disappeared from public schools, it’s clear that South LA residents are at a profound disadvantage.

Haddish has a long history of investing in her community; in 2017, for example, she founded the She Ready Foundation, which provides care and resources for children in foster care as they transition into adulthood.

Now, she’s turning her attention to providing South LA residents with access to healthy, fresh food and culinary education—a key step, she believes, toward dismantling social inequity.

“I can’t solve systemic racism by myself, but I do think if you teach people in this area how to cook, you will have happier and more productive families, and less of us on the street,” she says.

“What I want is a place centered around food where people can go, have an experience, bring their family together, create strong bonds, and yeah, maybe awaken the hidden talents of some super awesome chef, too.”

This was how Haddish’s idea for Diaspora Groceries was born. It’s a name meant to highlight the fact that most families in South LA originated from somewhere else: More than a third of the neighborhood’s residents are immigrants. She envisions a store that offers fresh produce and meat, with live preparation and cooking demonstrations for shoppers. In this way, residents of South LA might learn to prepare meals for their families in the same way Haddish learned to cook as a child—by observation. Three-quarters of Diaspora’s products will be sourced from Black entrepreneurs, with the opportunity for a co-op membership so the community feels a sense of ownership over the space.

She already had a location in mind, too: the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Buckingham Road in Baldwin Hills. There, Founders Bank—one of the first Black-owned banks in Southern California—once operated in a building designed by a Black architect. The dilapidated building has been abandoned for about 30 years, but it holds great personal meaning to Haddish. Her mother used to be a patron of the bank, and her father worked at the gas station across the street from it. “This is my portal into the world,” she says. “Without that bank, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

In 2020, with earnings from her successes in film, TV, and comedy, including Girls Trip, Night School, The Afterparty, and voice work in high grossing sequels to The LEGO Movie and The Secret Life of Pets, Haddish set out to purchase the Founders Bank property from the city of Los Angeles. To build community support for her vision, she spent much of the pandemic going door to door asking for signatures. Once she had 250 signatories, the city told her she needed to partner with a design team who could bring her vision to life. That’s when the magic began.

“The first meeting with the design team was so much fun,” she says. “We called it a think tank. I saw all of my ideas organized outside my own head for the first time. I was like ‘Wow, is this what designers do in college? I should have went!’”

Inside Diaspora Groceries, Haddish imagines, herbs will grow within produce displays and large fruitbearing plants in the middle of the shopping space will thrive under skylights. Dedicated “Food Champs” will answer customer questions about food, costs, wellness, and health. Shoppers will be able to peer into transparent classrooms, where community leaders teach everything from cooking to finance. An airy, light-filled kitchen in the center of the space will bring it all to life with the sounds and mouth-watering aromas of local culinary arts. A smaller classroom next to an outdoor garden will offer a more intimate learning experience where community members will grow fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet another classroom cantilevered over the ground floor will offer a semiprivate learning space with views of the activity below.

“When you come into a Diaspora Groceries store, I want it to be a whole experience. It needs to be bright and inspiring,” Haddish says. “That’s how we’ll strengthen individuals and their families. If it spreads, we’ll have a whole bunch of really dope chefs that have healthy households.”

Haddish and her design partners spent the better part of 2021 developing the concept for Diaspora Groceries and then shopping it to local developers. In January 2022, they joined forces with EquiBlue, a Black- and women-led real estate investment fund that seeks “to provide economic opportunity and upward mobility for women and people of color in under-resourced communities” on the West Coast. EquiBlue is part of Hudson Pacific Properties and a strategic partner of CBRE. Together, Haddish and EquiBlue co-fund manager Chris Pearson are pursuing the Marlton Square project, which proposes to redevelop 5.7 acres of office and retail space in Baldwin Hills, including the Diaspora Groceries site.

In February 2023, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved Hudson Pacific as the preferred buyer to purchase and develop the Marlton Square property. The goal is for Haddish to have complete ownership over the old Founders Bank building, which would allow her to maintain Diaspora Grocery’s exclusive focus on the local community. And once the flagship LA store is open, Haddish hopes to expand to other under-resourced communities in cities across the U.S. “Anywhere there’s need, anywhere there’s a food desert, I want to open up a Diaspora Groceries,” she says.

Reflecting on her childhood, Haddish believes a place like Diaspora might have changed her life story. “Maybe someone would have noticed earlier that I wasn’t very good at reading, and they would have helped me. Maybe I’d have learned to budget and wouldn’t have ended up homeless while I was trying to make it in comedy,” she says. “But now, I’m not just creating entertainment. I’m creating a place to get fed—not just for our physical needs, but for our mental needs, as well.”

“Anywhere there’s need, anywhere there’s a food desert, I want to open up a Diaspora Groceries.”