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 school auditorium floor is cold. Teenage bodies lay flat, struggling not to move. A few giggles escape. Thirty feet up on the catwalk, a boy rolls the video camera. Below, a couple of girls position the bodies into letters that spell out the words, one at a time: HAVE. YOU. NOTICED?
It's only the second day of class and already the group is filming the title sequence to what will be a series of videos about the East Los Angeles Food Landscape. These videos will screen at summer outdoor movie nights, in community health meetings, at national food activism conferences, on L.A. Metro buses. But this day in 2010, at the start of their work with Market Makeovers, Mr. Buchman's class at the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban Torres High School is focused on making people letters, introducing the very serious issue of healthy food access in a playful, unexpected way. In the process, they're learning how to work together.
This is how Public Matters rolls. Encouraging creative mischief in the service of public benefit. Pushing collaboration. Sharing ownership of process and product. Playing well with others. Not exactly your typical for-profit business.
You might say that in spirit, Public Matters is "a non-profit in for-profit clothing." A rag-tag group of artists, media professionals and educators, codified as "consultants," Public Matters is a social enterprise that builds creative and social capital in communities. As a for-profit business, Public Matters designs and implements neighborhood-based new media, education and civic engagement projects for social change. It cultivates cross-sector partnerships between grass-roots organizations, academic institutions, neighborhood residents, youth and local municipalities. It builds relationships and develops future leaders. At the core of Public Matters' practice is a sense of place. Its projects strive to nourish and deepen a sense of place in its participants, to instill in them a greater ownership over the places they live and work and recognition that they themselves can shape the future of their neighborhoods for the better. A sense of place breeds belonging, purpose and responsibility; it makes meaningful community transformation possible.
Within an art world context, Public Matters is a bit of an anomaly. Its work sits in the category of "social practice" though it's been around longer than the term itself. Its project timelines favor deep, long-term engagement over ephemeral interventions, with work measured in years, not months. All its clients and partners exist outside the art world, as do its audience and the goals of its work. In the case of Market Makeovers, which seeks to increase access to healthy food in grocery-poor neighborhoods, Public Matters' goals are rooted in education, community transformation and public health. Although it doesn't use aesthetics as a primary barometer of success, aesthetics are deeply embedded into the work itself; visual strategies drive the work and effect change. Woefully, artists are underutilized resources for social change; creativity an undervalued strategy for systemic transformation. By infiltrating fields outside the art world, Public Matters hopes to make these arenas more receptive to creativity.
Public Matters has been doing Market Makeovers since 2007, greening the food desert -- one corner store at a time. Market Makeovers (a. k. a. "corner store conversions" in public health circles) address 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 (diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease). Typical corner store conversions involve the physical transformation of existing stores, the addition of healthier inventory (usually fresh fruits and vegetables), and some marketing of the new items. Shortly thereafter, the stores are left to their own devices. Unfortunately, just because you stock doesn't guarantee that customers will buy. It's not just about supply; you also have to make sure you create demand.
As an intervention strategy, Market Makeovers are another order of magnitude altogether, expanding way beyond corner store conversions. Comprehensive and long-term, they call for direct community participation and relationship building and aim for nothing short of community transformation. They encompass education and community engagement; business training for storeowners/operators; store transformation; and social marketing to change health behaviors and increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. With Market Makeovers, local youth and residents play a central role in the hands-on work of transforming markets and educating the community about the benefits of fruits and vegetables. They implement the solution, and in so doing take ownership of it.
They're ambitious undertakings, with lots of moving parts. You can check out past Market Makeovers in South L.A. with the Healthy Eating Active Communities (HEAC) Initiative at www.marketmakeovers.org. For the past three years, Public Matters has been doing Market Makeovers in East L.A. and Boyle Heights through Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, a project of UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD). Proyecto MercadoFRESCO has transformed two markets in East L.A. so far, with two in Boyle Heights forthcoming.
Over the next few weeks, our Artbound posts will focus primarily on these Makeovers, providing a behind-the-scenes look at process and evolution, community building and education in action. You'll explore the Boyle Heights Food Landscape and the challenges (behavior, health outcomes) it poses to its inhabitants. You'll meet the local young people who are evolving into community health leaders: students from the School of Communications, New Media + Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School enrolled in a class designed around the project; alumni and a current student of the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban Torres High School who serve as MercadoFRESCO Community Liaisons. You'll see the stores before, during and after; meet the storeowners who've signed up for the risky proposition of selling fresh produce; learn how (or if) they build capacity for viable healthy food retail. You'll follow the Makeovers past the Grand Re-Openings to see youth-led efforts to ensure project sustainability when it counts the most: after the fanfare dies down.
Market Makeovers is an experiment in public engagement that plays out in real life - with actual people, challenges, and consequences. It comes with the imperfections and unruliness of personalities, institutions and relationships. It plays atop layers of history, against the backdrop of conflicting agendas (private profit vs. public benefit) and community baggage. It's fertile territory.
We hope that the specific example of the MercadoFRESCO Market Makeovers in Boyle Heights will serve as a springboard to explore broader ideas: the capacity of art and creative practice to impact complex, long-standing issues; place-based work; standards and aesthetics; working outside one's discipline and comfort zone; pedagogy and leadership development. To this end, our collaboration with Artbound will present posts from multiple perspectives and different voices, from participating youth, academic scholars, community developers, urban planners and educators. Topics may include the ethics of place; the history and context of the corner store; the role of media in community development; participatory and post-colonial pedagogy.
It is important, after all, to play well with others.