Many of our urban neighborhoods are virtual food deserts, lacking access to healthy produce and locally grown food, where a greasy Big Mac is far easier to find than a fresh head of cabbage. How to increase access to healthy food is a complex problem that offers no easy answers.
Creating sustainable change is a long process, much like growing food. For a garden to thrive, you have to do more than just plant seeds in the ground and walk away. Plants need water, compost, weeding and continued committed care. In the same manner, successfully greening our urban food deserts requires more than just a short term effort. Manifesting long lasting improvements to healthy food access demands a integrated holistic community-driven approach.
The social enterprise organization, Public Matters, is trying to tackle the complicated problem of how to sustainably transform some of our blighted food deserts in East Los Angeles. They are partnering with community groups to transform a few L.A. corner stores into healthy food oases. However, these market makeovers are more than mere physical changes to the retail stores; the coalition is also working to create positive, systematic and sustained changes in how people eat, cook and live.
Reanne Estrada, one of the founding members of Public Matters, explains what exactly is meant by a “market makeover”:
“The public health term, corner store conversion, focuses mostly on the physical transformation of the business; a market makeover is both a physical renovation of the retail space and a transformation of a market of customers; it addresses supply and demand in equal measures. It is a very specific participatory, community-driven process.
The change is a slow build out, and is not just about the physical makeover. In addition to working with store owners to increase the supply of fresh and healthy food in local stores, we work with community members to create and demonstrate consistent demand (increased sales and consumption of fruits and vegetables among customers) through strategic education and social marketing efforts.”
Public Matters has begun working with Los Angeles Communities Advocating for Unity, Social Justice, and Action (LA CAUSA) YouthBuild, Nathan Cheng Consulting and Supervisor Gloria Molina to transform two corner markets in Los Angeles County from a public health blight into community health resources.
The plan is to create a profit-making model that will help build long-lasting positive changes around food access and healthy behavior, and to also help neighborhood youth to become strong leaders in their community. Local young residents will be trained in green construction to make the physical changes to the retail outlets, as well as becoming community health advocates, and creating their own informational videos about the process.
In addition to these market makeovers, they are also working with the UCLA School of Public Health and USC on a NIH funded five year study related to cardiovascular health in East Los Angeles. Public Matters offers some insight into the scope of their work in the region:
“Our primary objective is to increase the availability and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in this under-served area designated as a food desert, which suffers some of the highest rates of childhood obesity (32.2%) in Los Angeles County. We will create a new cycle of food retail in East L.A. by implementing market makeovers, a comprehensive, participatory, community-based strategy that reconfigures existing local stores to carry healthier food inventory. Market makeovers are a practical, homegrown solution to healthy food access in communities like East L.A. with few existing sources of fresh foods and fewer prospects for comprehensive grocery store development.
Building on existing business infrastructure, customers, and community resources, this intervention strategy transforms local markets from chronic public health nuisance to neighborhood asset. By demonstrating how to make healthy food retail financially viable in East L.A., our initiative will advance policy, systems and environmental changes that will “green the East L.A. food desert.”
In order to create real change that lasts, increased access to healthy food must be coupled with education, shifts in behavior and a sense of empowerment. Neighborhood residents are involved directly, so that they will develop a sustained sense of ownership of these spaces.
In addition to transforming these retail businesses and growing new leaders, Public Matters is also helping communities to define themselves and create their own narratives. Estrada explains the collaborative nature of their work:
“A key component in what we do is that we work with community members to create media about their neighborhoods. The goal is to connect them to the places they live and work, and in so doing, develop in them a sense of ownership over these places and a belief that they can directly shape their neighborhoods’ future.
The media about their neighborhoods that they help create are meant to advance a specific community-defined agenda or initiative (for example, healthy food access in South + East LA). The media content reflects and benefits the community that has helped create it.”
Public Matters has been selected as one of the initial group of nominees for a $10,000 Design4Change award offered by the NAU clothing company. If they are lucky enough to win, the proceeds will go towards their market makeover work. Please click on the following link if you would like to vote for them: