East Los Angeles is a food desert. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, its population suffers high rates of obesity-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. It has some of the highest rates of childhood obesity (32.2%) in the county.
As part of a project funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Public Matters worked with the UCLA Center for Population Health + Health Disparities (CPHHD) to increase the availability and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in this under-served area. One of 10 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Centers for Population Health + Health Disparities (CPHHD) across the country, “Family and Neighborhood Interventions To Reduce Heart Disease Risk in East L.A.” sought to reduce cardiovascular disease risk among Latinos in East Los Angeles. The subcontract with CPHHD was under Grant No 1P50-105188-01 from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
Public Matters’ work was central to Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, CPHHD’s neighborhood-based intervention, which addressed healthy food access by implementing Market Makeovers – a comprehensive, participatory, community-based strategy that involves the physical transformation of existing corner stores; the addition of fresh produce; business training for storeowners/operators; education and community engagement; and social marketing to change health behaviors and increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Local youth and residents played a central role in the hands-on work of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO. They implemented the solution, and in doing so took ownership of it.
Market Makeovers are a practical, homegrown solution to healthy food access in communities like East L.A. and Boyle Heights with few existing sources of fresh foods and fewer prospects for comprehensive grocery store development. Building on existing business infrastructure, customers, and community resources, this intervention strategy transforms local markets from chronic public health nuisance to neighborhood asset. By demonstrating how to make healthy food retail financially viable in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, this work seeks to advance policy, systems and environmental changes to “green the food desert.”
The comprehensive work plan included:
The project aimed to:
Identified and brought on skilled project partners
Collaborated extensively with local community members, local government, and food policy groups
Guided students’ learning from the classroom into the community through performative public workshops and presentations
Developed compelling social marketing that connected students and residents to their neighbors and neighborhood in new ways
Oversaw the training, mentorship, and work of Community Liaisons, funded by an inaugural LA2050 grant
Dark. Dirty. Dilapidated.
The words rattled off. A description of a horror movie? Not exactly. Making its first visit to Yash La Casa Market, our class of high school students from the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban Torres High School was doing a simple observational exercise: pick three words to describe the market. Yash was cluttered. Its walls a drab gray, windows covered with bars. Ads for beer, chips, and energy drinks plastered the store inside and out. Greeting you at the entrance was the ubiquitous “wall of chips,” a display rack offered for “free” by a global food and beverage company in return for its prominent placement. The students’ words rang clear: We don’t want to be here, let alone shop here.
Yash oozed that corner store aura: Buy and leave.
Repeat this exercise at virtually any corner store and you’d get similar results. Therein lies the complexity and challenge of Market Makeovers. We aren’t just making physical changes to a corner store like Yash; we’re trying to shift the cultural perception of the corner store from public health blight to community resource.
ELARA is a Pilot School, an innovative model developed in a collaboration of LAUSD, UTLA, and the LA Small Schools Center. It is a result of LAUSD’s Public School Choice program, year one, and won its place at Torres in a public competition. The campus itself is the result of years of community activism, and ELARA’s proposal was developed in collaboration with a variety of community partners. It is one of only three high schools in the United States with an Urban Planning/Design focus.
CNMT will prepare all students for college, career, and civic engagement. It is a social justice-focused community school utilizing a Linked Learning approach with a thematic emphasis on communications, new media and technology.
UCLA CPHHD works in East Los Angeles, a predominately Latino, urban community with high rates of obesity-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. The center has three health projects based in East LA that work towards the common goal of reducing cardiovascular disease risk among community members. The Center’s activities are supported by a generous research Center grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Public Matters led the education and social marketing efforts, training students from two local high schools, East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban Torres High School and the School of Communications New Media + Technology (CNMT) at Theodore Roosevelt High School.
The goal of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO’s education and project-based curriculum was to make learning fun, participatory and to extend what happened in the classroom into the community. Media production is a method of critical inquiry and creative commentary, which enabled the students to examine and explore their environment. It allowed us to talk about diet, nutrition, advertising, why East L.A. is populated with numerous fast food options and so few healthy ones – and why this is a social justice issue. Before we met them, none of the students had ever heard of the term “food desert.” Yet all of them were intimately familiar with its consequences. All the students knew someone who is obese, overweight or had diabetes. Where you live, how much money you make, and your race determines health outcomes. Proyecto MercadoFRESCO enabled the students to address these health disparities.
BROADENING OUR REACH
In addition to working directly with store owners and youth to increase the supply of fresh + healthy food in local stores, Public Matters worked with the Community Advisory Board and community members at-large to create and demonstrate consistent demand (increased sales + consumption of fruits + vegetables among customers) through strategic education and social marketing efforts.
COMMUNITY LIAISONS – Market Makeovers: NextGen Leaders
Community Liaisons are emerging adults who began working with Proyecto MercadoFRESCO as high school students at ELARA and CNMT. Beginning in 2013, thanks to an LA2050 award Public Matters received from the Goldhirsh Foundation, the Community Liaisons transitioned from high school students to paid community leaders and project contributors. Mostly in college and experts in the Market Makeover process, the Community Liaisons led the store transformations in Boyle Heights. They, the dynamic and passionate leaders who grew up with Market Makeovers, embodied the project’s goals. For them, the change Market Makeovers strives for wasn’t transformative; it was personal.
Community Liaisons received training in store operations, marketing, graphic design and visual literacy. They assisted the stores with retail presentation and merchandising, creating in-store graphics and displays and social marketing campaigns to promote healthy food behaviors. They planned, promoted, and conducted community events: public presentations in schools and local organizations, cooking demos at the markets, and video screenings. They had access to local leaders and participated in community meetings and decision-making processes. They were the public faces of the project and the young leaders supporting East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights towards a healthier 2050.
IMPACT & LEGACY
Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is ultimately a process of transformation – of young people into neighborhood leaders; of local markets from health blight into community resources; of neighborhoods plagued by poor health outcomes into healthy places. Changing food behaviors and improving a neighborhood’s health outcomes will take a generation, maybe more. It will take policy changes, multi-pronged efforts and tremendous investment. Transforming the food landscape is serious business, but there’s no reason it can’t be fun. And it’s bound to be more effective when a group of local teens is leading the parade.
Today, members of the original Community Liaison cohort remain connected to long-term, place-based work through Urban Futures Lab.