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High school students in East Los Angeles are transforming corner stores into centers for healthy living

Story by Jessica Ritz, photographs by Marcia Prentice

At the corner of Folsom and Rowan, dramatic grade changes define the territory between the 10 and 60 freeways in this hilly pocket of East Los Angeles. The exterior walls of the Ramirez Meat Market are decorated with a cheerful tableau of farm animal silhouettes painted against a contrasting darker blue background. The market interior is compact but open. Merchandise displayed closest to the entrance includes fresh bananas, avocados, tomatoes, and cucumbers sitting on a table and in the refrigerated cases located to the left.

It wasn’t always this way.

“L.A. is many different worlds, but where you live really dictates your health,” Mike Blockstein, Principal of Public Matters, explained to the crowd of de LaB guests and community members seated in front of the shop. Because cardiovascular problems and other preventable health issues occur in higher numbers in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, Public Matters partnered with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities to catalyze change at a grass roots, accessible level.

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This mission to improve access to healthful food led the team to a sensible target: the corner store, since these spaces function as physical and social focal points within Los Angeles’s many so-called “food deserts.” Blockstein noted how transformations of the two stores included in de LaB’s Market Makeovers tour as part of its Making LA series reflect how Proyecto MercadoFRESCO responds to the community’s supply and demand questions. Firstly, how can the inventory content, quality, and presentation improve? And then, how do you sustain demand for certain products?

For these small business owners, major food corporations and their behemoth distribution networks exert outsize influence. Flaming Hot Cheetos, for instance, aren’t front and center or next to the cash register by accident. Participating in Proyecto MercadoFRESCO can be chancy for owners, since produce typically isn’t as profitable as other items. (Owners of both locations were present.)

Despite the risk, the four total renovated markets are already seeing sales increases of up to 50%. Because this is a project funded by a multi-million dollar National Institutes of Health grant involving two of the nation’s top research universities, methodology is a major part of the process; four control stores are included in the data collection as well.

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The initiative adopts an integrated approach that includes collaborating with two local high schools—Roosevelt High School and Esteban Torres High School’s East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA)—in order to tap a crucial resource: local youth. At Roosevelt, inspiring teacher Jorge Lopez created a Food Justice elective course, which helped to recruit a passionate corps of students who were eager to bring their skills to collaborate on all aspects of the Market Makeovers project.

A group of these students were on hand, with many boldly dressed in some awesome fruit and veggie themed costume that would be the envy of any trick-or-treater, to talk about how the project has impacted their own families and communities. (They also made delicious and beautiful fruit kabobs.) Karina Pulido, a second year student at UCLA, said getting involved “was a really good chance for me to bring something to my community. More importantly, it will help my family,” for whom health issues and food access are continual challenges.

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To help increase demand for healthier foods, Blockstein noted how Proyecto MercadoFRESCO sets out to “transform that whole ecology of making the store a resource where you can come learn about healthy behaviors.” This opening up of the stores is both literal and symbolic, with hopes that expanded windows and wider aisles will also translate to shifting attitudes and adjusted habits. Beverage corporation distributor-supplied refrigerators emblazoned with soda logos and shelves stocked with shelf-stable, industrial produced food items aren’t entirely banished, but rather relocated to encourage other choices. Pre-packed bags of produce are attractively priced at $5 and $10.

At Euclid Market, the second site included in the event located next to the landmark Casa del Mexicano cultural center in Boyle Heights, students crafted the attention-grabbing, fruit-and-veggie-themed “FRESCO” letters perched above the produce refrigerator. Reanne Estrada, the Creative Director of Public Matters, collaborates with various business and community stakeholders to settle on distinct interior and exterior color schemes, store layouts, as well as other details at each site, such as the animal motifs emblazoned on the Ramirez Meat Market and Euclid Market’s façades. Shop re-branding and design elements are smartly “in the vernacular of the community,” Blockstein said. “Nowhere else do stores look like this.”

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The social marketing campaign created for Proyecto MercadoFRESCO expresses Public Matter’s commitment to intensive public engagement. Posters with photographs taken by high school students of their peers and family members in cheeky poses in which vegetables are cleverly used as props (think: cauliflower heads in lieu of girls’ floral bouquets) are displayed in the markets and at visible spots in the community, such as bus shelters. The project team produced a calendar, too.

Behind the Euclid Market, high school students Shirley and Roxanne set up and led the “Super Snack Attack” demo. Shirley recalled not knowing “what a food desert was. No one told me how to eat,” a situation which the girls remedied by adeptly demonstrating how to make nutritious veggie cheese wraps, smoothies, and yogurt parfaits. Fellow student Guillermo concluded the session with a My Plate nutrition lesson.

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While the recent flurry of press and visibility is welcome, Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is about finding sustainable solutions, not just quick fanfare and a temporary spike in results. Lopez, the Roosevelt High School teacher, spoke of focusing on a key asset. His students are invested in “bettering their own health and the health of their families. Young people have this knowledge, and [can] take leadership and advocacy in their community.” That’s a long-range strategy everyone can bet on.

Check out more photos from the day here.

Jessica Ritz is a writer who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, Tablet and KCET. Her blog Taster Tots reviews the best family-friendly restaurants in L.A.

Marcia Prentice is a photographer and interior designer who appeared on the HGTV show “Design School.” Her photography has been featured in Apartment Therapy and Freunde von Freunden.

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This is the fourth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.