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Community Grocers Fear Impact of Food Stamp Cuts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last year’s landmark overhaul of federal welfare law was supposed to get people off the dole and back to work. But Norik Barseghian fears the change may cost him his business.

“I’m worried people won’t be able to buy as much food here anymore,” the bespectacled grocer said last week as he stood behind the cash register of his Glendale shop, Armenian-language compact discs and pistachio sweets filling the shelves behind him.

In immigrant communities from Los Angeles to New York, trademark ethnic grocers who cater to the specialized tastes of their clients have been dreading a change that takes place today.

That’s when hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants on the food stamp rolls--including about 97,000 in Los Angeles County, the nation’s leading magnet for new immigrants--will lose their federal food vouchers in what is the new welfare law’s most sweeping human impact here to date.

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Beyond the potentially bleak impact on recipients, policymakers and others are deeply concerned about the ripple effect of the cutbacks, particularly for community grocers who tend to live on razor-thin profit margins. Such entrepreneurs have long formed part of the American immigrant mystique, some emerging as venerable neighborhood institutions. Many, if not most, are themselves immigrants, like Barseghian, an ethnic Armenian who arrived as a refugee from Iran 11 years ago and saved to start his own business.

“There’s going to be a chain reaction in terms of small businesses,” said Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), whose 43rd Assembly District stretches from eastern Hollywood through Burbank and the western San Gabriel Valley and includes more legal immigrants than any other in the state. “This could be devastating to jobs.”

And the economic reverberations may well spread beyond the corner grocery, as many needy immigrants dedicate a greater share of their income to food and less to clothing and other products and services--even housing.

“I expect that a lot of people are going to be facing a choice between paying the rent or buying food,” said Mary Robertson, who heads the food stamp program for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

The average monthly food stamp allotment in Los Angeles County is $68 per person and $171 per household--not a lot, but enough to loosen the budget constraints for legions of families just getting by from week to week.

Some grocers in ethnic districts say a quarter or more of their trade is in food stamps.

“I’m sure business will be slow here once these cuts happen,” said James Kim, Korean-born proprietor of the family-run Mexicana Market on 1st Avenue near downtown Los Angeles, who estimated that food stamps constitute 15% of his sales.

Like many Korean grocers in Latino neighborhoods, Kim, his wife and his teenage daughter speak serviceable Spanish and have become versed in the essentials of Mexican and Central American cuisine, from the ubiquitous peppers to specialized herbs such as cilantro and epazote.

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Overall, county officials estimate that the food stamp cuts will pare the food-purchasing power of legal immigrants in the county by about $6.6 million a month.

To be sure, considerable neighborhood food stamp business should remain intact because naturalized U.S. citizens and the U.S.-born offspring of immigrants retain eligibility. In addition, California legislators approved an eleventh hour state plan last month to buy federal food stamps for the most vulnerable noncitizen population--children and people age 65 and older.

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Still, some significant drop-off in sales is certain, especially during the first 10 days of the month, when recipients collect their coupons. And that portends a concentrated impact on mom-and-pop stores in ethnic enclaves.

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“The big supermarkets won’t even notice,” Greg Keoshgerian said as he rang up orders for mostly Armenian clients at the Villa Market in Glendale.

Some small merchants say they have already noted a decline in purchases since the welfare law passed in 1996. Many poor immigrants receiving public aid appeared to be marshaling their limited resources, anticipating new benefit-slashing.

“People have been buying a lot less,” said Barseghian, owner of the Allen Market on Glenoaks Boulevard in Glendale.

Facing intense competition from other Armenian grocers, Barseghian says he goes to the produce market at 3 a.m. each day to find the freshest goods, seeking out deals on popular items like figs--widely used by Armenian immigrants to make jam. Nonetheless, he says his profits have been narrowing and he fears that the new food stamp cuts could signal the end.

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That legal immigrants may be buying less is perhaps a logical response to the welfare cutback talk from Washington, developments reported on regularly in the ethnic media.

“Welfare reform has heightened insecurity, especially for legal immigrants, who face a great unknown,” said Heidi Sommer, project director for the Southern California Study Center, a USC institute that has examined the possible trickle-down effect of the welfare changes.

Insecurity has certainly enveloped Haroutyun Grigoryan and his family in North Hollywood.

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Legal immigrants who arrived last year from Armenia, Grigoryan, 36, and his wife, Shogik, 34, will lose their food stamps today. But the new state program means their three children, ages 14, 12 and 1, will continue receiving the vouchers. The family’s total monthly stamp allotment, now $360, will be shaved by more than $100--a substantial amount, said Grigoryan, a high school principal in Armenia who remains unemployed here.

“I want to work, but it has been so hard without the language skills,” said Grigoryan, who is taking classes to improve his English and, he said, to help him find a job. “If they help us with the children, we’ll take care of ourselves, somehow,” Grigoryan added through an interpreter.

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A major attraction of the ethnic stores is that they stock items not often found in Ralphs, Lucky or Mayfair. Multiple varieties of Middle Eastern sweets, flat lavash bread and varying grades of tasty feta cheese stock the Armenian emporia of Glendale and Hollywood. Shops in Asian neighborhoods feature exotic fish sauces, aromatic teas, herbs and vegetables. And the many Latino markets feature endless varieties of chile peppers, among other specialties.

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“People drink this to relieve pains in their kidneys,” Guadalupe Olague said of a tea made of barba de elote (literally, corn beard, but actually corn silk) that is carried in Lupita’s Market and Carniceria (butcher shop), in the Temple-Beaudry district just west of downtown.

In many ways, Olague is emblematic of the ethnic grocer.

A single mother and herself a legal immigrant from Mexico, Olague says she works from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m daily. She leaves her home in Pico Rivera before her twin 10-year-old boys (both born in the United States) are awake and returns after they are asleep. A sister cares for them. The store, which specializes in meat but carries everything from milk to baby bottles to cigarettes and aspirin, provides her family’s only income, she says. During some months, sales hardly cover her $1,000 monthly rent and other expenses. Food stamps account for almost one-third of her sales.

“I can’t afford to lose any business,” said Olague, 43, a strongly built woman who wore a thick orthopedic belt around her waist to protect her back while moving heavy boxes. “I know there are people on welfare who don’t want to work and who take advantage of the system, but I think most of them are honest people who cannot find work or have to take care of children. I don’t think it’s fair to just cut them off and hurt them--and shops like mine that count on their business.”

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* CHARITIES PREPARE

Private aid agencies brace for an increased need for their services. B1


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