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Mosque Helps Farmers, Feeds City Residents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The line of cars that forms outside the Muhammad Mosque in South-Central Los Angeles on Saturdays is there for physical, not spiritual, nutrition.

The line, which sometimes snakes down Vermont Boulevard for three blocks, is for members of a new, fast-growing food cooperative that offers fresh fruit, vegetables and other staples at less than half the cost of big chain supermarkets.

The program is only 2 months old, but mosque leaders say they already have more than 3,000 members and plan to expand the program soon to mosques in Compton, Long Beach and other cities throughout the state.

“This is the embryo of something that will be big one day,” said Minister Tony Muhammad, who plans to meet with Nation of Islam leaders in Chicago in two weeks to discuss expanding the program nationwide.

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The co-op began as a way to help struggling black farmers sell their produce. But organizers say it also provides inner-city residents with a cheap and healthy alternative to the food sold at chain supermarkets. Membership is not limited to members of the mosque. In fact, organizers say most members are not Muslim.

Members pay a $25 annual fee. Each week, on Thursdays and Fridays, members order a prepackaged box of groceries: $45 for a vegetarian box; $55 for a meat box. Each box can feed a family of four for a week.

In addition to vegetables and fruits, the boxes include a gallon of milk, a bottle of orange juice, cheese, a dozen eggs, butter, rice, noodles, beans and cereal.

Muhammad estimates that the same box of groceries would sell for more than $116 at a chain supermarket.

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Every Saturday, co-op members drive to the front of the mosque where a worker verifies that they have paid while another worker loads the groceries into the car.

“I just pull up and my shopping is done,’ said Rose Parker, a co-op member and mother of two. “They also put the box together in a healthy way. There are no cookies and no processed food in there.”

What food the black farmers cannot provide, co-op members buy in bulk early Saturday at the Los Angeles Farmers Market.

There are a few catches to the program: Each co-op member must occasionally help package the groceries at the mosque. Also, mosque organizers choose what groceries will be in the box. Members can only choose between a vegetarian and a meat box.

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But members don’t seem to mind.

“I figure that if it comes fresh from the fields, I’ll try it,” said Dorothy Hill, a registered nurse who was picking up her groceries Saturday. “So far, I’ve been pleased.”

The mosque has also been teaching canning techniques for the vegetables that are left over at the end of the week.

The idea for the program came from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who saw a television report about struggling black farmers and suggested a food co-op to help sell their produce.

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Muhammad said 21 black farmers from the San Joaquin Valley and four farmers from San Bernardino participate in the program.

The co-op started with about 800 members of the mosque. A month later, Muhammad said, the program grew to more than 3,000 members when it was opened to all. “It has nothing to do with religion,” he said. “Everybody has to eat.”


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