The old blue pick-up truck with the custom-made display case attached to its bed slowly makes its way up the street. There are no signs on its doors, but the contents of the truck are well known to the Ramona Gardens community.
Every day, just before noon, a small but loyal group of residents waits patiently for the truck’s arrival at the corner of Lancaster Avenue and Evergreen Street. They line up to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the truck’s owners. In this community, with the nearest supermarket three miles away and the neighborhood market specializing in household items, fresh produce is scarce.
Depending on the season, Sánchez’s fruit truck is filled with bananas, grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, onions and a variety of peppers. He also sells bottled water, soda and fruit juices, as well as popular snack items the local kids buy after school. He erects a canopy to provide shade, and provides chairs for customers to sit on.
José Trinidad Sánchez, 77, began selling fruit in Ramona Gardens in 1989, the year he arrived to the United States from Jalisco, México. Since then, he and his son, Ismael Herrera, now 39, have become an integral part of the neighborhood by offering residents fresh produce at affordable prices.
They arrive before noon and stay until 8 or 9 p.m. in summer and until sundown in winter ”“ usually around 5 or 6 p.m.
Nico’s Market, the only food store in Ramona Gardens, has been there more than 40 years, but it doesn’t really compete with the fruit truck business. Nico’s sells mostly meats and dry goods, with just a limited amount of fresh produce. “Sometimes they have stuff we don’t have,” Sánchez says, “so people go over there, and sometimes we have something they don’t have, so they come here.”
Ten bananas for $1
Not only does the fruit truck provide more produce options than Nico’s, but the prices are also more affordable. According to Ramona Gardens resident Danny Ortiz, 22, “The frutero is cheaper compared to Nico’s. When I don’t have time to go to Food 4 Less or a big market, it’s easier to go to the frutero to buy a couple of things.”
At Nico’s Market, fruit and produce are generally sold by the item, and the cost per item is higher than from the truck. At Nico’s, a single banana is 60 cents. The fruit truck sells 10 bananas for a dollar.
Gabriel Meza, 23, lives right next to Nico’s, but prefers to buy fruit from the fruit truck. “For a dollar, you can buy three lemons at Nico’s,” he says. At the fruit truck, he gets 12 lemons for a dollar.
The fruit truck can offer lower prices because of low overhead. Herrera notes that Nico’s “has employees and needs to pay them. Here it’s just me and my father.” A convenience for customers is that they sometimes extend credit.
Even though Sánchez has been selling fruit in Ramona Gardens for nearly 25 years, he began almost by accident. Sánchez noticed there were no vendors in the public housing development and began to show up with produce once or twice a week. After he became known in the community, he and his son began to come daily. Today, the two describe the housing complex as their second home.
Herrera says their fruit truck earns them enough money to pay their monthly bills and living expenses. They keep commuting expenses low by living nearby in Boyle Heights and buying produce from a wholesale fruit warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Sanchez says while there have been a lot of changes within Ramona Gardens since he first arrived, the fruit business has largely remained the same. At one point, the local housing authority wanted them out, citing potential loitering issues.
Sánchez says when customers heard about the attempts to remove them, some of them organized. “Housing wanted us out,” Sánchez says, “but the people gathered enough signatures, took them to housing, and helped us stay.”