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Proyecto MercadoFRESCO: Enlightenment & a Giant Taco

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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.


The words rattled off. A description of a horror movie? Not exactly. Making its first visit to Yash La Casa Market, our class of high school students from the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban Torres High School was doing a simple observational exercise: pick three words to describe the market. Yash was cluttered. Its walls a drab gray, windows covered with bars. Ads for beer, chips, and energy drinks plastered the store inside and out. Greeting you at the entrance was the ubiquitous "wall of chips," a display rack offered for "free" by a global food and beverage company in return for its prominent placement. The students' words rang clear: We don't want to be here, let alone shop here. Yash oozed that corner store aura: Buy and leave.

Repeat this exercise at virtually any corner store and you'd get similar results. Therein lies the complexity and challenge of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO. We aren't just making physical changes to a corner store like Yash; we're trying to shift the cultural perception of the corner store from public health blight to community resource.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is a multi-year, multi-pronged approach to improve cardiovascular health in East L.A. and Boyle Heights. It's a project of the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD), funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Public Matters is responsible for engaging youth and community members in the transformation of local corner stores and the promotion of healthy behaviors (eat more fruits and veggies, please) that support the stores and their transition to healthy food retail.

Sound simple?

Think again.

 Production still from "Have You Noticed How Much Junk Food We Eat? " High School Students Lilybeth Hernandez and Damaris Vega from the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA).
Production still from "Have You Noticed How Much Junk Food We Eat? " High School Students Lilybeth Hernandez and Damaris Vega from the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA).

It's Friday and school just let out. Identical scenes play at our two partner high schools, ELARA and the School of Communications, New Media and Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School. A flood of teenage bodies exits the gate and coalesces into familiar trajectories; they stream towards Jack's or one of the many fast food places surrounding campus, towards the local raspado places or one of the numerous corner stores for a slushy, a soda, Flaming Hots. Street vendors beckon: candy, chicharrones. Ice cream trucks circle, siren songs blaring. You can trip over all manner of junk food as you navigate the East Los Angeles or Boyle Heights food landscape, but fresh healthy options are few and far between. Food environment shapes behavior; an unhealthy diet develops accordingly: it's what's available, accessible and acceptable. It's the diet with which the students have grown up and to which they are increasingly addicted.

Brenda Manzanárez, RD from the Community Diabetes Initiative of USC teaching ELARA students Andy Acosta and Florisel Rojas how to make their own version of Tampico.
Brenda Manzanárez, RD from the Community Diabetes Initiative of USC teaching ELARA students Andy Acosta and Florisel Rojas how to make their own version of Tampico.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO seeks to change behaviors and improve health outcomes. The solution begins with education. For the past three years, Public Matters has taught classes at ELARA and CNMT around Proyecto MercadoFRESCO, training high school students to become community health leaders and advocates. Proyecto MercadoFRESCO primes students to become agents of social change who transform their food environments in concrete, tangible ways and advocate on behalf of the healthy changes they implement. Learning is hands-on, both in the classroom and out in the community. We cover five main topics:

  • Food Access as a Social Justice Issue
  • Media Production
  • Healthy Eating and Nutrition
  • Media Literacy
  • Social Marketing

It's a typical day in Mr. Buchman's class at ELARA. Students are physically present, yet dreaming of other things. Omar is chewing so voraciously on his pencil that it breaks in half. Jocelyn is at her desk devouring a burger in one hand, a taco in the other. The class becomes twitchy, agitated, and unable to focus on Mr. Buchman's lesson. To the class, Mr. Buchman's blue flannel shirt looks suspiciously like a taco. In fact, Mr. Buchman is a giant taco. They're all fiending: two tacos for 99 cents at Smack's. When the bell rings, the entire class stampedes. In the corner, an NPR reporter watches for a possible story on food deserts.
Welcome to media production at ELARA. The class is shooting scenes for "Have You Noticed How Much Fast Food We Eat?," a video based on the aforementioned Friday after-school trek to Jack's. Eventually, the finished piece will screen at summer outdoor movie nights, numerous community presentations, and on LA Metro buses. From this day on, the class will know their teacher as "Taco Buchman."

The goal of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO's education and curriculum is to make learning fun, participatory and to extend what happens in the classroom into the community. Media production is a method of critical inquiry and creative commentary, enabling the students to examine and explore their environment. It allowed us to talk about diet, nutrition, advertising, why East L.A. is populated with numerous fast food options and so few healthy ones - and why this is a social justice issue. Before we met them, none of the students had ever heard of the term "food desert." Yet all of them were intimately familiar with its consequences. Just ask how many of them know someone who is obese, overweight or has diabetes (answer: everyone). Where you live, how much money you make, and your race determines your health outcomes. They and their families are at a distinct disadvantage. Proyecto MercadoFRESCO enables the students to address these health disparities.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is also about leadership development. Leadership development is about opportunities. Soon, the students will be in front of an audience of parents and community members talking about food deserts, performing skits they've developed about healthy eating and nutrition, and screening their videos.

ELARA students Shirley Ramirez, Liliana Guizar-Serrano, Florisel Rojas, Catherine Martinez, Omar Vargas and Ylse De Los Santos break up a giant concrete slab in the back of Yash La Casa Market with Volunteers of East Los Angeles (VELA) coordinator Geo Segovia. The slab is now a garden.

It's a blistering East L.A. summer day - upper 90's. The ELARA class has matriculated from "students" to "Proyecto MercadoFRESCO interns." They are in the backyard of Yash La Casa Market. Using nothing more than hand tools (pick axes, bars, sledgehammers), they are breaking up Yash's giant concrete slab, which will find new life as a garden. The students may be hot, sweaty and perhaps a bit grumpy from the hard work, but they are also exhilarated. This is no longer a study or class project about food deserts or healthy eating and nutrition; it's a chance for them to transform their neighborhood. Learning has been turned into action.

Yash La Casa Market before and after its transformation as part of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO.
Yash La Casa Market before and after its transformation as part of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO.

Within a few months, the words to describe Yash are completely different. "Colorful." "Tasty." "Healthy." "My Store." They roll off the students' tongues. Customers agree. Yash's exterior is now bright green. Beer, soda and cigarette posters have been replaced with large glass windows. The bars are gone. Inside, beer posters featuring scantily clad lady-flesh have disappeared, as have ads for beer, chips, and energy drinks. The formerly paltry produce items have been replaced with a shiny, fully stocked produce case, visible from those big new windows. The "wall of chips" has been moved to the back. Yash now projects, "Welcome: come and stay." Mothers, the primary shoppers of fruits and vegetables, feel more comfortable bringing their kids into the store and shopping for the family.

Ramirez Meat Market before and after its transformation as part of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO.
Ramirez Meat Market before and after its transformation as part of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO.

Soon the same scenario will be repeated at Ramirez Meat Market, the second Proyecto MercadoFRESCO East L.A. store. In a few months, two more stores in Boyle Heights will undergo the same treatment, led by a mix of students and alumni from ELARA and CNMT. They will have progressed again, this time from "interns" to "community liaisons." They will be paid staff of the project and of Public Matters, tasked with the challenge of transforming markets, behaviors and health outcomes. The physical transformation of the markets is just another step in the Market Makeover process. To ensure the sustainability of healthy food retail in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, the community liaisons will be responsible for promoting the stores and their healthy inventory.

It's fall of Proyecto MercadoFRESCO's third year. Students from Mr. Lopez's Food Justice class at CNMT meet on a Saturday morning with the community liaisons and a Public Matters crew. They are on their way to promote the MercadoFRESCO markets' new healthy inventory at the East L.A. Mexican Independence Day Parade. Some students are dressed in bright orange Proyecto MercadoFRESCO t-shirts, freshly silkscreened in Mr. Lopez's classroom. Others are dressed in giant fruit and vegetable costumes, courtesy of artist Amy Howden-Chapman and the ELARA students who created the costumes the previous year. The group walks on the sidewalk, passing out flyers along the parade route. Within an hour, buoyed by the enthusiastic response of thousands of parade watchers, they are unofficially walking down the middle of the street in the parade. People cheer them on.

Proyecto MercadoFRESCO is ultimately a process of transformation-- of young people into neighborhood leaders; of local markets from health blight into community resources; of neighborhoods plagued by poor health outcomes into healthy places. Changing food behaviors and improving a neighborhood's health outcomes will take a generation, maybe more. It will take policy changes, multi-pronged efforts and tremendous investment. Transforming the food landscape is serious business, but there's no reason it can't be fun. And it's bound to be more effective when a group of local teens is leading the parade.

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