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I Was a Teenage Avocado

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Lilybeth Hernandez in her avocado costume.

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.

The transformation to Teenage Avocado was not spontaneous; I didn't suddenly wake up and find myself a 5' 7" anthropomorphic avocado. It was gradual, one that I would say began with Public Matters, Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, and a concept: food deserts.

My first appearance as an avocado was at a neighborhood parade commemorating Mexican Independence Day in East Los Angeles. I grew up attending the parade with my family each year. It's of particular importance in my community. It's a tradition. When Public Matters asked me to participate in the parade, I agreed -- with some trepidation. I am not overly coordinated or particularly theatrical, but VELA -- The Volunteers of East Los Angeles, the local non-profit organization we'd be working with -- was close to my heart. That day during the parade, dressed in my avocado costume, I performed and passed out fresh produce while promoting the local farmers' market, healthy eating, and Proyecto MercadoFRESCO. In retrospect, Mexican Independence Day was the gateway, the jumping point towards being game for just about anything and a big step in my overall character development.

Prior to my involvement with Proyecto MercadoFRESCO and Public Matters, I had never heard the term "food deserts" and certainly never considered my "local food environment." Even once I learned what a food desert was, it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that East Los Angeles was one. I never knew any other environment, so as flawed as it was, it was still familiar, still normal. Taking a step back from that was a challenge, one that proved inevitable once I did consider my food environment, viewed markets elsewhere, and learned about the health disparities afflicting my community.

"Well what do you think we should do?" "What would work?" These were the questions Public Matters asked our class at the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA). I began this project three years ago as a high school junior. As a student, being asked these questions came as a pleasant surprise; it was exciting that our collective and individual experiences were considered both relevant and important. Public Matters provided us with information, demonstrated methods, and asked us to take ownership. This is what made it work -- the liberty we were given. Our role was empowering. Suddenly I was someone who could stand in front of a crowd and engage with people. I participated in parades and veggie fashion shows and photo shoots, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I wanted to start a conversation about the fact that food deserts do exist and that there is a problem in food access, because it's ridiculous that this is a conversation that has to happen in the first place.

Lilybeth with fellow Community Liaisons Miriam Rosas, Guillermo Avila, and Andy Alvarez at the <a href=&quot;;>Primavera Festival</a> in Boyle Heights.
Lilybeth with fellow Community Liaisons Miriam Rosas, Guillermo Avila, and Andy Alvarez at the Primavera Festival in Boyle Heights.

In the fall of 2011, Public Matters asked me to present in front of the Community Food Security Coalition's national conference in Oakland to discuss the work we were doing with Proyecto MercadoFRESCO and the role of youth-led media in our work. As a group, we had several presentations under our belt, both with the local community and with more formal conferences, yet those were nothing close to the size of this conference. The response from the audience was overwhelmingly positive. At the time, I was just beginning to develop an interest in public health. Participating in the conference and the trip overall, experiencing being part of a panel, and exploring other avenues of interest -- these were all significant decisive factors for me; I can pinpoint that trip as sparking my interest in food.

There were groups promoting, discussing, or just engaging individuals in all matters of food: food security, food access, food production. It was eye opening to see that there were several movements concerning something so basic and essential as food. During that trip, I also visited the Berkeley Bowl, a mecca of produce the likes of which I had never experienced. There was produce I had never seen before, like Buddha's claw, and produce I had heard of but had never tried, like figs. I remember looking around at rows and rows of produce as a main focus, as opposed to an afterthought in a grocery store. It was amazing. It also made it extremely difficult to return to my local "grocery stores" with their sad looking produce, limited selection, and funky layout. There was no way to compare the two. I was also fully able to grasp that food deserts were not exclusive to my neighborhood. Other communities were having similar if not worse problems with health, with access -- and not just in California, but all across the nation.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO was changing me.

Before my involvement with Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, my experience with gardening was limited to watering my grandmother's rose bushes every now and again. One of the guest speakers who came to one of our Proyecto meetings was Lucila Caro, a master gardener. She taught us about growing fruit and vegetables, compost, and worms. I was impressed with her ideas, so when the opportunity arrived to work directly with Lucila to develop a gardening class with an elementary school, I jumped at the chance. A fellow classmate and Community Liaison, Martha Mejia, and I started talks with administrators at Our Lady of Guadalupe Elementary School. We presented the idea of teaching a class on gardening with a focus on container growing -- a method of gardening that best addressed the lack of or limited space and the need for fresh produce in low-income communities. After several talks, revisions of proposed lesson plans, and plenty of rescheduled meetings, we had our plan: we would work with a second-grade class that was about to start learning about the plant cycle.

Lilybeth and Community Liaison Clara Mejia leading the "Winter Warmth" Cooking Demo with storeowner Kulwant Songu of Yash La Casa Market.

There is something empowering about growing your own produce; you are in control of what you want to grow, how to grow it, and how much. The time and love you dedicate to this small seed or transplant returns sevenfold when it's reached harvest. Being able to share that was wonderful, and being able to do so in my own community was even more rewarding.

Over the course of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO my responsibilities shifted, and I was increasingly given opportunities to develop events and strategies that I believed would be effective in East L.A. I've been able to use my experience to mentor students at Roosevelt High School and implement Proyecto MercadoFRESCO in Boyle Heights. Not so long ago, I was the one occupying the desk, hesitant to put on the avocado costume. Now, I'm able to go into the classroom and engage with this new group of students, to hear their ideas and offer some guidance in developing marketing strategies, cooking demonstrations, and presentations that fit with the Boyle Heights community.

In the fall, I will be attending New York University to pursue a degree in public health. After seeing the direct implications of living in a food desert, both in my own home and in my community, I feel that no person should be at a disadvantage because of limited resources.

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