Nurturing South L.A., one market at a time
Britanni Marie Dighero stood in an aisle of the Coronado Meat Market and Bakery in South Los Angeles, reading the ingredient list on a package of her favorite fudge cookies into a video camera. She occasionally stumbled over phrases like “propylene glycol mono” and “diesters of fats and fatty acids.”
“I never read this before, and I’m really sad right now,” said Britanni, a high school senior.
“If you can’t read it, don’t eat it,” added another student, Jessica Orellana.
The spot they were taping, called “Do You Mind Reading What You’re Eating?,” will be included on a website the students are developing as part of a broader effort to fight childhood obesity and related diseases, including diabetes.
They are working in neighborhoods where a third of the children are overweight and about half are not physically fit -- and where a scarcity of supermarkets is a long-standing source of community ire.
The website is one of several projects statewide called Healthy Eating, Active Communities, sponsored by the California Endowment. It was no accident that the students were making their video at Coronado Market, a small full-service grocery store on Avalon Boulevard. Coronado was the first to get a market makeover: A new wooden produce rack can be moved outside in good weather. Bananas are stacked near the checkout to catch shoppers’ eyes. A produce aisle was relocated near the entrance.
A pegboard above it displays dozens of herbs, spices and dried peppers. The store started to sell leaner meats, and the in-house bakery tried to use less lard. On the front door is a poster with the headline: “A healthy life starts with your shopping cart.”
Students from the Accelerated School, a South L.A. charter, have worked on makeovers at two stores; negotiations are underway to start on a third.
“Ideally, when you are working with these neighborhood stores, they’re more rooted in the community, so they are more likely to stay in it for the long run,” said Reanne Estrada, an associate with Public Matters, an education, media and civic engagement consulting firm that has been working with the high school students.
“The goal is to get the store owner to think differently about their inventory,” said Nathan Cheng, a business consultant in Oakland who has worked for a decade to make nutritious food available in low-income neighborhoods and who has helped with the Los Angeles market makeovers. A makeover can run $10,000 to $35,000, he said.
The owner of Coronado market, Ignacio Coronado, had a goddaughter at the Accelerated School and was willing to take part, he said through a translator, because he liked the idea of small Latino markets offering more fresh food and improving customers’ health.
And even though his overall sales are down a bit these days, his produce sales are up, he said.
“A lot of people say it looks better and has better presentation,” Coronado’s wife, Janet, said.
Such makeovers might not seem dramatic. There still are racks of chips and plenty of candy for sale, as well as fried pork skin and plastic tubs of lard. Stocking more produce that spoils quickly can be risky for a small store, especially one in a poor neighborhood. And changing stock doesn’t change customers’ habits; even as the Accelerated School students were making their video, several shoppers bypassed fruit and vegetables for pastries and snacks.
But Coronado said he considered the effort a success and plans to use what he learned in a new store he’s opening in Huntington Park.
Maribel Trujillo, shopping at Coronado with two children one recent drizzly morning, said she has lived in the neighborhood for years and likes shopping there. The employees are attentive and have helped her father, who has Parkinson’s disease, when he shops.
The produce is better than in the past, fresh and not bruised, she said.
“That’s the first place I go,” she said. “Because of the news, I try to eat less chips and sodas.”
When the students approached the owner of a second store, Los Compadres, a small market and cafe near their school, the owner was surprised that anyone would want to help him without charging him for the service, said student Selma Lozoya.
The work there included organizing the community to paint a mural on one outside wall that had been repeatedly tagged with graffiti. The mural has been left alone. A produce rack was added near the front. A refrigerated produce section in the back was repaired and signs were added. Milk, eggs and juice were moved to be closer to the produce bins. The store was cleaned and painted, and colorful tablecloths were added to the indoor tables.
Anyone who drives around South Los Angeles can attest to the abundance of fast food, liquor and other corner stores. Food researchers describe the neighborhoods as a “food desert” because of the scarcity of supermarkets and high-quality fresh food. Hopes after the 1992 riots for new supermarkets often went unmet.
A Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is under construction at East Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue, and an independent grocery store is slated for Central Avenue and 20th Street, said L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has supported the students’ work and who sponsored a moratorium that restricts new fast-food restaurants in parts of South L.A.
Market makeovers are being tried in cities across the country, said Mike Blockstein, the principal of Public Matters. There are challenges for store owners, such as suppliers vying for lucrative display spots. And not every small store has refrigerator capacity for produce and juices. There are challenges, too, for people trying to make ends meet and who can buy soda for a fraction of the cost of milk.
In addition, makeovers are just one part of a “recurring public discussion over the last decade” about obesity and health, including nutrition education, food access and the difficulty of changing habits, Perry said.
Selma, a senior, joined the project last year, trying to fulfill the Accelerated School’s graduation requirement of 75 community service hours.
“I really didn’t care before. I ate what I wanted. Doughnuts. I love doughnuts. Now, I can’t even eat Hot Cheetos,” she said.
She brought home what she was learning, with dramatic results. Her mom, Carmen Vasquez, 41, had had her gall bladder removed the previous year. She was obese, suffered from headaches and generally felt lousy much of the time.
“She thought, ‘If my obesity caused this, I should do something.’ But she didn’t know how to go about it,” Selma said.
As Selma became involved in Healthy Eating, Active Communities, she began to cook for her family, and she got her father to buy the gym equipment that sits at one end of the living room: a weight bench, a treadmill, a stationary bike. She and her mother worked out together, and her mom improved her eating habits, including a decision to cut out the 24 Cokes a week she had been drinking.
Today, she is 60 pounds lighter. And hugely proud of her daughter.
“There are no words to express what she has done,” Vasquez said.
“It’s a transformation,” Selma said. “I feel like she came back to life.”
The Public Matters website, www.marketmakovers.org, is scheduled to go live at the end of March.