South Los Angeles has some of the poorest health outcomes in Los Angeles with alarmingly high rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. The number of fast food restaurants vastly outnumbers outlets for healthy, nutritious food. Quality produce, let alone any produce, can be hard to find.
South LA HEAC, an initiative of the California Endowment, strove to engage students as advocates for safer, healthier communities by involving them in the Initiative’s programs and activities. South LA HEAC initially approached Public Matters to work with high school students to create documentary videos about the local food environment. Bringing our experience and perspective into early conversations about the project’s design, Public Matters consulted with South LA HEAC to develop a program that would ultimately advance the Initiative’s overall goals around youth engagement, community building, policy, and creating a healthier South LA.
Over the course of two years, Public Matters worked with South LA HEAC to create a public health, civic engagement, and leadership development program for HEAC’s high school aged Youth Ambassadors. Through our efforts, the South LA HEAC Youth Ambassadors became a highly visible force in South Los Angeles and beyond. They created videos; spoke and presented at conferences, LA City Hall, and before the LA Planning Department; transformed the food environment; helped friends and family to change their diets. Through Market Makeovers, two local corner stores were transformed to offer healthier food choices.
Public Matters vastly expanded South LA HEAC’s visibility, community relations, and the scale, scope and quality of the Initiative’s youth engagement.
Built partnerships with local organizations and with the local City Council office
Led Market Makeovers of two South LA corner stores: Coronado Meat Market and Bakery and Los Compadres Market
Trained HEAC Youth Ambassadors in food justice, advocacy, media production, healthy eating and nutrition
Created curriculum and led workshops with HEAC Youth Ambassadors at The Accelerated School (TAS)
Expanded the South LA HEAC’s youth leadership development work to include media production, community engagement and Market Makeovers to meet HEAC’s broader policy and community-focused goals
Created 126 original videos that depicted the local food environment, creatively told South LA food desert history, demonstrated how to transform corner stores, featured community health leaders and advocates, and served as advocacy and educational content for South LA HEAC
Made www.marketmakeovers.org, an online how-to resource for making over corner stores to carry healthier food choices that includes 3 channels worth of content
Food deserts are all over the US, in urban and rural areas, sometimes in places that ironically used to grow food, and usually in low-income communities. Sure there’s stuff to eat, but it’s probably not food you should be eating regularly (plenty of calories, few nutrients). Fast food signs dot the landscape, but you can drive for miles without seeing a healthy place to eat. There are few supermarkets and a lot of land in between them. Residents buy food and drinks from local markets selling unhealthy stuff with an unnaturally long shelf life. Junk food ads surround you. As a result, folks are overfed but undernourished, prone to overweight, obesity, diabetes and chronic illnesses.
In South Los Angeles, food deserts are manifested in the typical manner: mainstream grocery stores are rare, and when they are present the quality of the food is poor and the prices are high. What sets South LA apart from other urban food deserts is its size. This community is home to roughly 800,000 people, and spans 60 square miles depending on how the boundaries are drawn. South LA is truly a federation of smaller communities. Yet each one is overrun with liquor stores and other small “corner stores”, at times referred to as convenience stores. Few of these stores sell fresh food; if they do have fresh items, the store’s selection is limited and items are overpriced and of inferior quality. Liquor is the dominant product in most of the stores, creating another set of public health concerns related to substance abuse and addiction.
South LA Healthy Eating Active Community Initiative (HEAC)
South LA Healthy Eating Active Community Initiative (HEAC), was one of six sites in a statewide initiative funded by The California Endowment (TCE) that aimed to reduce childhood obesity and diabetes by increasing access to nutritious food and physical activity opportunities for children and families. Entitled the Childhood Obesity Brain Trust, South LA HEAC was a collaborative of local CBOs, health organizations, community health centers, hospitals, schools, health initiatives and social justice agencies.
A policy-based, community-driven initiative, South LA HEAC:
The Accelerated School (TAS)
A charter K-12 school within the Los Angeles Unified School District; TAS was the lead agent for the Childhood Obesity Brain Trust (COBT), the collaborative administering the South LA HEAC initiative and the site of Public Matters’ work with the South LA HEAC Youth Ambassadors.
TAS emphasizes high expectations for student achievement, a supportive learning environment, and extensive parent involvement. Students are treated as gifted, but none are academically screened prior to acceptance. All incoming students are accepted by lottery.
HEAC YOUTH AMBASSADORS
A select group of 10th-12th grade students were hired as HEAC’s Youth Ambassadors. All students were working class Latinos and African-Americans, as befits the school and neighborhood’s demographics. Prior to this experience, their knowledge of public health, nutrition, or South LA was limited at best. Their connection to the community was similarly limited.
Beginning first with an intensive summer program and then expanding into a school-year program, Public Matters created a comprehensive program for HEAC that developed students’ personal health and wellness, self-esteem, and capacity to advance its broader goals. Meetings took place at TAS, but the aim was always to prep HEAC youth to do hands-on work out in the community.
Components of Public Matters’ youth engagement included:
Food Justice and South LA History: Understanding the Food Desert
Prior to working in a food desert, it was crucial for the Youth Ambassadors to understand why South LA is one in the first place. One of the biggest “aha” moments for students was discovering how institutional racism, policies and events that are part of South LA’s history, like redlining and white flight, led to an environment that has a scarcity of comprehensive grocery stores and an abundance of liquor stores. Through guest lectures, peeling back the layers of history, and interactive workshops, HEAC Youth learned about the forces that shaped and continue to shape their community. This component was essential to enacting change on a personal and political level as the HEAC Youth learned how communities come into being and how and who makes key decisions.
At the start of the project, HEAC Youth were issued creative licenses. ‘Creative license’ was a term they’d never heard. They were far more taken by the notion that the licenses looked like fake ID’s. HEAC Youth were tasked with exploring, interpreting, and commenting on the food environment that surrounded them. They learned basic camera skills, audio production, storyboarding, screenwriting, and how to work as a production crew.
HEAC Youth created:
The HEAC Youth became HEAC’s in-house media team. Their work was screened locally, at LA City Hall, presented to the LA Planning Commission, featured in exhibitions at The California Endowment and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, among many others. These all helped South LA HEAC advocate for change, reach broad audiences outside of the immediate community and sphere of health advocates, and tell the story of life in the food desert from a creative and unexpected first-person point of view.
Tasking a high school student with being a community health leader is far easier said than done. Public Matters taught HEAC Youth public speaking and how to give presentations, to be comfortable both in front of and behind the camera. By the end, they were presenting throughout California.
Healthy Eating and Nutrition
The sad reality is that most high students in the LA Unified School District know very little about nutrition. Working class and immigrant families in areas like South LA are also challenged with pressures of time, financial constraints and cultural competencies that make eating healthy difficult. Add to this an environment where most food, and certainly most food that is affordable, is processed and it’s a glaring problem. Through work with Public Matters and HEAC’s network, HEAC Youth learned about diet, nutrition and food preparation. This led to a radical transformation of their individual diets, how their families ate, and to broader advocacy work with their peers.
Public Matters’ work is built around creating opportunities for youth and community members to enact change in their own neighborhoods. Learning about your community’s food desert is frankly depressing unless you’re given a chance to do something about it. HEAC Youth transformed two local corner stores to carry healthier food choices and to appeal to a more family-oriented customer base.
Not content with confining the Market Makeovers knowledge and experience to those immediately involved with the project, Public Matters and HEAC Youth developed MARKETMAKEOVERS.ORG to provide a comprehensive profile of the project’s work and legacy. It also profiled the challenging conditions under which the project operated. The site is a repository of information, a forum, and a springboard to further actions and information.
IMPACT & LEGACY