Hunger Games

Residents in East and South Los Angeles are shaking up the neighborhood food landscape, using innovative solutions to change eating habits and tackle the challenge of getting fresh, affordable and healthy food into communities.

“Food swamps” are caused by an ever-increasing concentration of fast-food restaurants that overwhelm the more limited options for healthier alternatives, and the impact has been stark: an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and other related chronic illnesses—costing billions in health care costs and reducing the life expectancy of residents.

On a recent Storybus Tour organized by Hollywood, Health & Society called “Hunger Games,” writers and producers were given a first-hand look at the activists, community groups, public health professionals and students who are fighting back. They are starting urban gardens and mini-farms, learning healthy cooking habits, promoting a grass-roots fruit and veggie ad campaign, and transforming corner markets, which in many neighborhoods are the only place to shop—supermarkets being too few and far for many who don’t have the luxury of private transportation.

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Although the swamps are a long way from being drained, residents are being empowered to think of the food that they’re able to buy and eat in a new way: as a basic right that, when taken away, violates a sense of social justice.

The Storybus expedition offered writers the opportunity to walk streets that they wouldn’t normally explore—one writer who lives on the west side of the city acknowledged that he had not been to East Los Angeles in 30 years—and perhaps provide some real-world information and inspiration for their work.

“We know that writers care about making their stories the most compelling stories they can be,” said Sandra de Castro Buffington, director of Hollywood, Health & Society, who led the tour. “We help you make your health stories compelling by making them realistic.”

Setting the scene for the writers group—and giving them a crash course on health disparities in low-income communities of color—was Breanna Morrison, an analyst for Community Health Councils, a health policy and advocacy organization.

In South Los Angeles in particular, Morrison told the writers, the reasons for the sorry state of public health are complex and interconnected —a perfect storm of opportunities lost, neglected and never offered. The 1965 Watts riots caused many supermarket chains to pull out of the community, replaced by discount stores and abandoned lots. Filling the food vacuum were fast-food restaurants—lots of them. Morrison said 70% of South Los Angeles restaurants are fast-food, which take away from whatever available land that could be used for healthier alternatives.

“Nutrition is a social justice issue that needs to be addressed to improve the quality of life,” said Morrison.

Morrison said that not only does the community struggle with inequitable access to healthy food, but residents also suffer from a lack of open space to exercise, play and be physically active. As a result, South Los Angeles has the highest rate of diabetes in the city, where 35% of the adults and 29% of children are obese.

Fed up, community leaders and other officials got busy. They partnered with local schools and trained students from Crenshaw High School to conduct restaurant and grocery store surveys to assess healthy options and prices, compared with West Los Angeles. They found a higher incidence of expired selling dates on everything from meat to milk.

“It was the first time many of the students even looked at the expiration dates on food items,” Morrison said. 

Morrison said advocacy groups worked with local politicians to push through a development ordinance that limits the growth of fast-food places, preserving what’s left of the limited amount of land for other uses, including grocery stores. Since the law passed, Morrison said, six new supermarkets have opened, and only one fast-food restaurant.

Armed with research showing that South L.A. grocery shoppers were taking their business—to the tune of $2 billion—to nearby communities such as Inglewood and Culver City, the groups convened a meeting with representatives from the supermarket industry to identify barriers to development. Through the California FreshWorks Fund, $260 million in development money was raised through private investments and from The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, with the goal of opening five new grocery stores over the next four years.

Michael Prelip (left), a professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and a co-leader in the market makeover project, and Francois Barr, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School who was involved in Healthy Food Map of South L.A., at lunch panel.

As Morrison finished her remarks, the bus pulled up to the first stop for the day—Dorsey High School, where culinary students learn how to cook healthy meals. Through a program called “Change What You Eat, Change How You Feel” that was established by Daphne Bradford and her nonprofit organization, Mother of Many (M.O.M.), the budding chefs operate an online cooking show, “Cooking Live With Dorsey High,” often buying fresh, locally grown produce from a 2.5-acre garden located at Crenshaw High School. 

But it’s clear from watching the students at Dorsey that the quaint notion of “home ec” has given way to something a lot more substantive. Here, students are not only taught how to cook, along with lessons on food safety, the importance of good nutrition and the effects of diet on health, they also get some real-world business skills. Since 2008, through Bradford’s M.O.M. nonprofit, Dorsey students have run a catering operation, working big-time events such as a company barbecue for Ogilvy & Mather and another at the University of Southern California, among others.

Today, about a dozen students—some of them wearing the traditional chef’s toque hat—were demonstrating their chopping, slicing and dicing skills on vegetables, fruit and baked, skinless chicken breasts, using knives that would make any graduate of the Cordon Bleu proud. Dorsey’s industrial-strength kitchen, with its professional ovens, mixers, freezers and refrigerators, is a testament to the legacy of one woman, Erevetta Marzette, who took what was basically the school’s abandoned metal shop and turned it into the stainless-steel heart of the culinary arts program, often spending her own money for supplies.

Marzette has been home recovering from an illness, and all signs indicate that she will soon return. In her place on this day, supervising the students, was Chef Anthone Owens, a 2009 Dorsey graduate who studied at the Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena. Like a lot of Dorsey alumni, it seems, Owens is “giving back” by working as a school volunteer.

Later, during a break for lunch at the Mercado La Paloma near downtown, the group of writers sat down with those who are working to foster a new lifestyle of healthier living in underserved communities of color. 

A team from AltaMed, a large network of health clinics in the U.S. offering care for seniors and women, HIV/AIDS and drug treatment, discussed their 12-week comprehensive program to combat childhood obesity, STOMP (Solutions & Treatments in Obesity Management & Prevention), which is run out of the AltaMed clinic in Boyle Heights. They included Jessica Solares, manager of health education; Vilma Andari, director of obesity; Dr. Sheela Rao, a pediatrician and instructor affiliated with the Keck School of Medicine of USC; and Geoff Coster, development officer.

The systemic problem of obesity, the writers learned, rests on a somewhat odd truth: someone can be malnourished and overweight at the same time. When regular breakfasts for kids, said Andari, consist of a bag of chips and a soda, the table is set for health problems down the road.

“Soda is considered a special treat,” said Dr. Rao. “Food [such as sugary beverages and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos] can be a more affordable treat for kids than, say, athletic shoes.”

“Parents have a hard time saying no to their kids,” said Solares. We tell them, ‘You can either cry now, or cry later.”

The battles being won to change neighborhood attitudes toward healthier food options—through the efforts of educators, public health officials, activists and residents—often rest with the younger members of the community, who are being enlisted in this growing movement to bring about change.

“Youth are such an important piece of this picture,” said Michael Prelip, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, who also attended the lunch panel discussion. “This whole food justice/social justice angle is such a big hook for them … they just take off with it.” 

The plan to change community perceptions about healthy food doesn’t stop with the stores. As part of their classroom immersion in marketing and media production, the students flexed their messaging muscle on a bus stop poster ad campaign in which various groups from the community—boxers, skateboarders, mariachis, cheerleaders, metal heads and futbolistas—all professed that when it came to choosing fruits and vegetables, they were totally down with it. 

Francois Bar, an associate professor of communication at USC’s Annenberg School, was recently involved in producing a Healthy Food map for the South L.A. Ride + Walk. The project was a collaboration with the organizations Community Services Unlimited (CSU) and TRUST South LA. Over the course of six months, pedestrians and cyclists representing the local community explored and researched urban gardens, markets and grocery stores while scouting safe pedestrian and bike routes. The map, which is available online and in print, lists more than 20 locations.

Also on hand at the lunch were Dyane Pascall and Lawrence DeFreitas, two representatives from CSU, a nonprofit based in South Los Angeles for 30 years. CSU is the driving force behind a handful of programs that grow, distribute and sell food in the community—incorporating youth programs, training and education, said Pascall, an associate director of the nonprofit’s business arm, Village Market Place. 

He and DeFreitas, a youth program director and volunteer coordinator for VMP, talked about fostering a sense of healthy sustainability in the community, through a network of urban gardens, mini-farms, produce stands and a farm-fresh subscription program that delivers weekly bags of organic produce and herbs to participants. The deliveries, by the way, are often made by student workers on bikes.

The community health picture brought on by food disparities is similarly bleak in East Los Angeles—with diabetes often rampaging through generations of families, along with high rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. 

“They’re seeing kids in clinics 8, 9, 10 years old with Type 2 diabetes,” Prelip said.

And, like South Los Angeles, many residents in East Los Angeles lack the luxury of owning their own car for trips to the grocery store. A supermarket sometimes is two or three bus rides away, and this is why in many Latino neighborhoods, the small corner market remains the go-to place to buy food. Often dark and cramped, with shelves haphazardly stocked, these family-run markets skimp on offering fresh vegetables and fruit; instead, there are racks of chips prominently displayed near the entrance, and well-stocked, refrigerated cases full of soda. 

At one corner store in Boyle Heights visited by the writers group, the inside was worn and dingy, with a sour, heavy smell in the air. A counter in the back of the shop had chicharron (fried pork rinds) for sale, along with other tired-looking cuts of meat. Nearby, there was a display table with a modest offering of two bunches of bananas and some onions.

As part of a five-year research grant from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the UCLA-USC Center for Population and Health Disparities set out a long-range plan to transform a handful of the markets into clean, well-lighted spaces, with offerings of fresh produce and other healthy food, and to improve the stores’ visibility in the community. In addition, the project called for a partnership with students from nearby Roosevelt and East L.A. Renaissance Academy high schools to educate community members about the benefits of eating healthy. Students enrolled in a six-month course on food access, social justice, media production and message development.

Prelip, who’s a co-leader of the corner store makeover project, said that when they started designing the market intervention, “we saw the kids as our agents of change.”

“The administrators and teachers were trying to figure out new ways of teaching, of getting their kids involved,” said Prelip. “So when we approached them about working on food justice, they were really excited.”

Prelip said students initially helped to assess market candidates for makeovers, and the project leaders finally settled on four finalists to eventually serve as healthy-store role models, out of the 170 or so corner stores in East Los Angeles. Renovations—stores remain open during the work—were to be completely funded through the NIH, along with training the owners to be more business savvy: teaching them methods for purchasing and keeping track of inventory, marketing and, perhaps not the least important, handling and stocking fresh produce. “Waste is a huge issue,” Prelip said. “It cuts into profits.”

Mike Blockstein, the principal of Public Matters, an interdisciplinary social enterprise that leads the education and social marketing efforts of the makeover project, said that everyone was aware that it had to be a long-range, comprehensive effort.

“We still have to remember that we are working for a for-profit business, and that they make money selling chips and soda,” Blockstein said. “So we’re not trying to take that away. Our process is about community engagement; it’s not so simple as putting fruits and vegetables in a store and expecting residents to [come]. This is a long-term changing of the whole perception about what a corner store can be.”

Said Prelip: “Unless market makeovers are a sustainable business model, it won’t work.”

The Storybus Tour pulled up to Yash La Casa Market, the first to undergo a transformation, which cost in this case about $25,000. The store’s interior and exterior were given fresh coats of paint (yellow for inside, lime green on the exterior), and windows in the front were stripped of plywood, signage and security bars to let in more natural light. Students did much of the heavy lifting, and in the case of Yash, demolished and removed by hand huge slabs of concrete in the back yard to plant a vegetable and herb garden.

Along for today’s tour were three high school students who are involved in the market makeovers—Destinee Arriero and Alexandra Silva of Roosevelt, and Clara Mejia from East L.A. Renaissance. Mejia told the writers about an early, pre-makeover visit to Yash, which she recalls as being “dark, and the smell was not good … it was a scary smell.”

In addition to the physical renovations, the new Yash has fruits, vegetables and herbs—including beets, bananas, apples, mangoes, broccoli, cabbage, cilantro, ginger, jicama and garlic—neatly arranged in blue bins on shelves and in refrigerated cases. Customers who sniff once or twice might think the store smelled like a clean, pleasant mix of laundry detergent and citrus. The owners, Balvinder and Kulwant Songu, who bought the store in 2000, added food offerings from their native India (including home-made yogurt) after the makeover was completed.

To raise community awareness about the changes made to the stores, the market makeover project proposed the idea of having the owners hold regular, free cooking demonstrations as a way to introduce healthy behaviors and change how the public relates to the store.

At Yash, Kulwant holds her monthly cooking demonstrations in the back yard—a sort of open-house afternoon during which neighborhood residents can drop by, sample some tasty treats and maybe pick up a tip or two about cooking with new ingredients. Recently, she showed how to make an Indian-style garbanzo bean dish, along with grilled roti flatbread and chai tea. (Another nearby store that underwent a makeover, the cheerful blue Ramirez Meat Market, announced its recent cooking demonstration as “Amor al Primer Mordisco”—Love at First Bite.)

The Songuses said that the makeover has attracted new customers and increased business, although Kulwant said that things were a bit slow toward the end of last year because most families were spending their money on Christmas gifts.

The plan to change community perceptions about healthy food doesn’t stop with the stores. As part of their classroom immersion in marketing and media production, the students flexed their messaging muscle on a bus stop poster advertising campaign in which various groups from the community—boxers, skateboarders, mariachis, cheerleaders, metal heads and futbolistas—all professed that when it came to choosing fruits and vegetables, they were totally down with it. The posters will eventually make their way onto the walls of renovated stores.

The task of changing decades of neglect, knowledge, attitudes and behavior is not simple, officials acknowledged. Health-monitoring studies have been put in place as part of the NIH grant to determine just what kind of impact the makeovers will have. For now, perhaps, a different future dawns one small corner grocery store at a time. 

“We have so much work to do,” Prelip said.

“Seeing the high school students involved in both the culinary and community organizing programs were the best,” said Maria Elena Rodriguez, a writer on the tour. “You see the poise and confidence they have because of these efforts.”

Alexis Krasilovsky, the writer, producer and director for the upcoming documentary Pastriology, called the tour “illuminating.”

“I’m grateful we had the opportunity to participate and hope that our introduction to these places and people will bear fruit,” she said.