Los Angeles

Bringing Healthy Food Alternatives to Boyle Heights

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Public Matters' Market Makeover is a comprehensive strategy for addressing the "grocery gap" in "food deserts," areas that have limited access to quality, healthy food; an overabundance of fast food; and alarmingly high rates of chronic conditions related to poor diet.

As I walk down Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, the smell of exhaust and greasy, salty, tasty foods overwhelms my nose. The street is shaded yet colorful, cramped yet large -- filled with everything from fruit vendors to bacon wrapped hot dog vendors, taquerias, bodegas, and stores selling everything from household items to inexpensive fashion from across the globe. Walking down First Street near Mariachi Plaza, a completely different vibe is felt. It is much sunnier, and while there may be fewer people out and about, more of those people are lingering, relaxing, enjoying their afternoon in the sun. Mariachi Plaza has a rich history in Boyle Heights, and it is a lovely place to people watch. Cars pull over to make event arrangements with mariachis, people enjoy their lunch in the warm sun, and people gather to voice their thoughts. As a relatively new Angeleno, Boyle Heights has become one of my favorite neighborhoods. It has so many interesting layers of history to be uncovered and learned about, so many wonderful people and organizations, and such an air of constant buzz and hope as things are changing for the better. Wall after wall covered in vibrant murals, young folks walking the streets and creating movements to improve the community and neighborhood in which they grew up.

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As fascinating a neighborhood as I think Boyle Heights is, the healthy eating options are limited. I haven't actually counted, but I would bet that for every fresh apple available, there are at least fifty tacos, hot dogs, or hamburgers available to the public. Today's Boyle Heights population is 94 percent Latino, with an average household income of $33,000. Compared to the City of Los Angeles, residents have around $20,000 less per household to spend on housing, food, transportation, and other expenses. On average, family sizes are larger in Boyle Heights than citywide, further stretching dollars. Residents experience disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease -- also known as racial and ethnic health disparities. Children are even experiencing these diseases -- 26% of children in 5th, 7th, and 9th grades suffer from obesity. The worst part about all of this? These diseases are preventable. Poor diet and lack of physical activity, both made possible by barriers to health in Boyle Heights, are often the leading factors. The chart below shows the high rates of these health conditions in Los Angeles County, with African American and Latino populations suffering more than everyone else.

Overweight or obese and diabetes are much higher for the Latino and African American populations than the rest of Los Angeles County. Source: California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Los Angeles County Multicultural Health Fact Sheet. Data from 2000. http://www.cpehn.org/resources.php

Boyle Heights has historically been the gateway into the City of Angels. The neighborhood has a longstanding, vibrant, and ethnically diverse population with significant waves of Japanese, Russian, Jewish, and Mexican immigrants starting their Angeleno lives in Boyle Heights, often fleeing violence in their homeland. In the early days of Los Angeles' formation, Boyle Heights, replete with hills and far enough away from the Los Angeles River, was seen as a less desirable place to live. Yet leaders such as Andrew Boyle and Mayor William H. Workman saw it as the land of opportunity, developed it, and in came the waves of people. The immigrant, minority residents of Boyle Heights have often been marginalized, criminalized, or otherwise attacked by others, which has led to a strong self-preservationist culture. Preservationism and activism aside, Boyle Heights has always had a large artistic community, which is apparent just walking down the street. The artists work in conjunction with the activist culture to create a very strong sense of community for Boyle Heights. Consider the rich history of Mariachi Plaza, Self Help Graphics, the many murals, and Proyecto Jardin to name a few.

Yet the rich culture and vibrant history of Boyle Heights hasn't protected its people from the powers that be -- planning and policymakers haven't exactly given this neighborhood the opportunity it deserves to survive and thrive. In the 1960s, five freeways were built surrounding and dissecting the community. These freeways impact the Boyle Heights community far more than other places in Los Angeles. Dividing people. Separating places. Creating toxic environments. In addition to the freeways, an unfortunate period of political divestment, redlining, and upward mobility of certain residents resulted in a place and a group of people that have been left with few tangible resources. Some businesses have steered clear of investing in the neighborhood.

Milk? Not exactly. Most corner stores in Boyle Heights sell chips, beer, and sweets, with a serious lack of healthy options.

Food swamp, food desert, call it what you will. Either way, the food landscape in Boyle Heights has a lot to do with the health disparities that exist. Within the 6.52 square mile border of Boyle Heights, only four full service grocery markets exist. Meanwhile, data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health lists over 167 liquor stores, corner stores, and convenience stores. Not considering local or small scale fast food establishments (of which there are many), there are still over 48 McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Jack in the Box, and other major fast food chains in the neighborhood. When you add all of the local fast food establishments, the number jumps to over 200. That's a whole lot of burgers and Flamin' Hot Cheetos, and not so many apples. That's where Public Matters, Community Liaisons, Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, and Market Makeovers come in.

Image4a_BoyleHeightsFastfood.jpg

Through the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD), Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is part of a multi-pronged approach to improving the health outcomes in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, specifically targeting the reduction of cardiovascular disease. Two stores have already gone through the Market Makeover process in East Los Angeles -- Yash la Casa Market at Hammel and Hazard, and Ramirez Meat Market at Folsom and Rowan. We have now begun the Market Makeover process with two stores in Boyle Heights -- Sociedad Market at Whitter and Mott, and Euclid Market at Euclid and 6th.

Sociedad and Euclid Markets are typical of the 167 liquor, corner, and convenience stores filled with unhealthy products. They're also plastered with problematic messaging inside and out. Sociedad is located on a busy intersection in a commercial corridor. There are schools and employers nearby, yet it is impossible to go into the market and buy a healthy snack. Water costs more than beer. Euclid Market is located on a quieter street, a much larger market with a meat counter and a scattering of produce. The produce is poorly maintained, often overly ripe if not outright rotten. Full-service grocers may not be interested in coming to Boyle Heights, but an alternative exists. So where do we go from here? Stay tuned to learn how Public Matters and the Community Liaisons are Greening the Food Desert of Boyle Heights.

Drab, uninviting, and lacking healthful choices. Sociedad and Euclid Markets represent the majority of markets in Boyle Heights, yet hope exists. Their existing footprints and relationship with the community provide an opportunity for change.

Drab, uninviting, and lacking healthful choices. Sociedad and Euclid Markets represent the majority of markets in Boyle Heights, yet hope exists. Their existing footprints and relationship with the community provide an opportunity for change.


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Top Image: Boyle Heights storefront.How can anyone be expected to focus on healthy eating when every which way you turn there are unhealthy products and ads?

About the Author

Jackie Illum, MPL, is an urban planner interested in health equity and economic justice.
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