Woman bakery owner balances tray of breads on shoulder
Open Access LA, a new web portal hosted by USC Dornsife’s Food Equity Institute, helps food-industry entrepreneurs succeed. (Photo: iStock.)

USC Dornsife Food Equity Institute, local experts launch web resource for L.A. food entrepreneurs

A free, one-stop-shop resource, tailored specifically for the Los Angeles market, offers tools for creating business plans, guidance on funding, help obtaining permits and licenses, and more.
ByIleana Wachtel

Research shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic, about a third of Los Angeles County residents have struggled with food insecurity. In 2023, 30% of residents were food insecure. These residents face a lack of food outlets that provide healthy, affordable, good quality food, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

The Institute for Food System Equity (IFSE) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), aims to improve L.A.’s food landscape with today’s launch of Open Access LA.

IFSE will host the free, open-source web portal for budding food entrepreneurs, with LAFPC providing content drawn from their decade of providing technical assistance to food entrepreneurs in underserved L.A. communities.

Developed by public health leaders, policymakers and researchers from the nonprofit Aspen Institute’s Food & Society, who partnered with IFSE and LAFPC to develop an L.A. version of the portal. Open Access LA addresses the unique challenges entrepreneurs face when starting a food business in the county, offering them resources and tools to set up shop in their communities.

“Los Angeles is one of the great food capitals of the world, despite its high rate of people lacking access to healthy, affordable food. The Open Access platform will support new culinary talents of all sorts — from restaurateurs and food trucks to urban farmers and grocers — to take root here,” said Kayla de la Haye, founding director of IFSE at USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research. “For the institute, it’s another way for us to connect with and support local food retailers, who are key to helping solve pressing food problems in L.A.”

A custom fit for L.A food entrepreneurs

Many food entrepreneurs, particularly those of color, face significant hurdles when attempting to open a business. Obtaining financing, navigating regulations and securing permits and licenses pose serious challenges.

Key features of the Open Access LA portal include:

  • Business planning resources, including guides for writing a business plan, securing funding and choosing a business structure.
  • A start-up guide specific to food businesses that includes a checklist for permits, licenses and certifications required for food trucks, restaurants, catering and private labels.
  • Marketing tips, connections to restaurant associations and chambers of commerce, and other professional services tailored for the food industry.

“Starting any new business is challenging, but the rules and processes for opening and maintaining a food business can be daunting. The Open Access portal demystifies that journey on one easy-to-use platform,” said Alba Velasquez, executive director of LAFPC.

Website promotes investment in local communities

Creating sustainable and equitable communities starts with ensuring that L.A.’s food retail businesses are run by local residents, de la Haye explained. This gives more control over the city’s food supply and offerings, rather than relying on outside companies.

But many Latino and Black entrepreneurs struggle to access credit, which is essential for starting any business. They often lack connections with banks or credit unions, increasing their financial risk and hampering their ability to secure loans for business growth, according to Food & Society researchers. This leaves their communities with a dearth of food businesses.

“We want to help remove some of the many barriers Latino, Black, Indigenous and woman-owned small businesses face in getting access to capital, technical assistance and guidance,” said Corby Kummer, executive director of Food & Society.

So, experts at the program set out to develop a solution, and in May 2022, they released the first Open Access in Washington, D.C.

Open Access offers another pathway to reduce the number of people struggling to find healthy food in their neighborhoods, says de la Haye. “Supporting local food businesses run by community residents not only allows locals to help feed their neighbors food that is culturally relevant but also creates an opportunity for business owners to reinvest money back into the community. This approach will help ensure that the food systems in Los Angeles are resilient.”

L.A. is the fourth city to roll out the Open Access portal, following Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Next steps

De la Haye views Open Access LA as a launchpad to strengthen USC Dornsife’s ties with Los Angeles food businesses and other stakeholders, such as LAFPC, who can use the institute’s data-driven resources to develop a more equitable food system.

“The Open Access portal represents the first phase of collaboration between LAFPC and IFSE to build a robust support system for food entrepreneurs,” said LAFPC’s Velasquez.

“We have the expertise to provide data that identifies which communities need more access to healthy and affordable food,” de la Haye says. “This can help us target where food entrepreneurs can be most impactful, providing food that is culturally relevant, reinvesting money back into the community, and helping ensure that the food systems in Los Angeles are resilient.”