Clara Mejia (right) and her friend Catherine Martinez.
It’s tough finding fresh food in a food desert. Just ask Clara Mejia and her classmates at the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA). “In East L.A. it’s cheaper and easier to buy four fast food hamburgers than to cook a healthy meal at home,” stated Clara. “There just aren’t many options for healthy food here.”
Clara was born and raised in Mexico, where she was accustomed to her grandmother’s home-cooked meals. She has vivid memories of accompanying her grandmother to buy fresh produce at the local mercado and recalls how much she looked forward to preparing traditional meals like vegetable cream or her favorite, lettuce tacos. However, everything changed after Clara moved to East L.A. Clara was unsure about the food. “Everything tasted different,” she said. “The flavors were unfamiliar.”
This wasn’t Clara’s first time in the United States. Clara and her family had moved here when she was one year old. They stayed until Clara was seven years old, but then returned to Mexico. A few years ago Clara and her family came back to the U.S. and re-settled in East L.A.
A turning point in Clara’s journey came two months into her junior year at Garfield High School, when she transferred to the East L.A. Renaissance Academy, School of Urban Planning and Design, a pilot school developed in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District, United Teachers of Los Angeles, and the L.A. Small Schools Center. ELARA is one of three urban planning high schools in the United States. Soon thereafter Clara was elected ELARA’s Junior Class President, a role she truly relished. “Going to ELARA was one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Clara. “It taught me about being active in my community and how to speak in public. It also taught me about critical food justice issues in East L.A. – I had no idea.”
East L.A. wasn’t always a food desert to Clara. This realization came during the course of her work with Public Matters, an innovative L.A.-based interdisciplinary social enterprise that incorporates media and other creative strategies for education and civic engagement projects that yield long-term community benefits. In 2010, ELARA partnered with Public Matters and the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD), with financing from The National Heart and Lung Blood Institute (NHLBI), as part of a five-year project titled “Family and Neighborhood Interventions to Reduce Heart Disease Risk in East L.A.” The goal of the project is to increase the availability and consumption of healthy food (fruits and vegetables) specifically among U.S.-born and immigrant Latinos in the resource-poor community of East L.A.
Public Matters’ role in the project is to work with students from ELARA and the School of Communications New Media + Technology at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights to develop inclusive community-based social media strategies that transform select corner liquor stores/bodegas/mini-marts into health-conscious assets. Aptly titled “Proyecto MercadoFresco del Este de Los Angeles,” the project aims to implement four market makeovers (corner store conversions) in a period of five years as a solution for curbing chronic health issues. They had already completed two market makeovers.
Apart from the physical store transformation, students working with Public Matters are learning about health disparities and the root causes of food deserts, nutrition, social marketing, media production, community engagement, and cultural sensitivity and exchange. Since launching the project, students have gained hands-on knowledge of public health issues. They are developing a grassroots civic media social marketing campaign for the newly transformed markets, programming workshops with local youth and community members, and serve as the project’s community health advocates.
Speaking with authority, Clara describes a food desert as “a place that has a lack of access to healthy produce and mainstream grocery stores— a ‘Red Zone.’” According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, East L.A. residents suffer from some of the highest rates of obesity (especially childhood obesity), heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. Physically, East L.A.’s landscape is dotted with fast-food establishments, liquor stores, and sparse big box markets that sell larger retailer’s often non-nutritious leftovers. Mainstream markets that sell fresh produce or healthy food are few and far between. Residents often need to travel for miles for places that sell more than just junk food. Unfortunately, the health consequences associated with food deserts are often compounded by other typical inner-city social inequities including limited affordable housing, lack of open space, poor schools, and inaccessible transit.
“While there is a strong community and there are a lot of nice places to visit, East L.A. also has the highest rates of diabetes and blood pressure, some of which have affected my own family” stated Clara. “Children are not well-fed by their parents and every street has at least two liquor stores, fast food restaurants, or 99 cents stores, all with poor produce or healthy food options.”
Clara considers her involvement with food justice issues (specifically “Proyecto MercadoFresco del Este de Los Angeles”) a major turning point of her life. “There is my life pre-Public Matters and after Public Matters,” said Clara. In fact, Clara has used her classroom and experiential lessons to inspire her family to live more “healthy, homegrown, fresher, and cheaper” lives. “We even planted our own garden at home, including apples, peaches, tomatoes, beets, carrots, lettuce, squash, broccoli, and zucchini.” Whatever they don’t grow in their own garden Clara’s family buys at the large Whole Foods Market in Pasadena or the Ralph’s Market in adjacent Monterey Park. Once a month Clara stocks-up on large items at Costco. “When you go to Whole Foods or to markets outside of East L.A. it smells nice and fresh. I wish we had markets like those in East L.A., and that they would smell just as nice and fresh,” Clara said.
“When I first signed-up for the class, it was originally supposed to be a basic media literacy class. But then our teacher, Mr. Buchman, brought in Public Matters to establish a larger project,” stated Clara. “When we started, I didn’t realize it would benefit both the community and ourselves. Public Matters brought in speakers from local universities, dieticians, and community members. I really liked it.”
In summer 2011, Clara’s ELARA class did a group internship to completely transform the Yash La Casa Corner Market near the ELARA campus into a fresh food hub for the community. This involved re-painting the façade, re-organizing the merchandise, upgrading refrigeration, and creating a community garden and civic space for inter-cultural cooking demonstrations between the area’s heavily Latino community and the Indian family that operated the store. “After we started the project, Kulwant, the store owner, asked if we could build a garden. A total of 26 students broke the concrete in the back of the store, brought in soil and plants, and painted the walls with stencils and silhouettes of fruits and vegetables,” described Clara. “That was followed by a grand re-opening of the store in October 2011 and later by cooking demos (hosted by Kulwant and the ELARA students) of traditional Indian cuisine.” The cooking demonstrations, which were inspired by Clara and fellow classmate Catherine Martinez, have been well received. Not only did they become a community event, but they also established a stronger bond with the local community and introduced healthy, affordable meals from diverse cultures to East L.A. After the success of Yash La Casa Market, Public Matters continued their work by remaking a second market in East L.A., Ramirez Market.
Media soon became a new civic engagement tool for Clara. “Students produced videos about our experiences living in a food desert, including one that I directed, with my teacher dressed in a taco costume,” remarked Clara. “We screened them at the East L.A. Civic Center Park (during the East L.A. Farmers Market) and they were also featured on Metro buses [as part of LA Freewaves’ “Out the Window” series, in collaboration with Public Matters, the Echo Park Film Center, and UCLA REMAP—download the mobile app here]. We even hosted a ‘Fresh in the Streets’ veggie costume parade and fashion show showcasing ELARA students, one for each of the following fruits or vegetables: cilantro, purple onion, jalapeño, corn, pomegranate, and avocado.” Clara’s sister Martha, who also attended ELARA, worked on the initial launch of the project—she was the purple onion.
Clara produced this movie on food choices with her classmates.
Though it wasn’t featured in the parade, Clara’s favorite vegetable is the nopal (cactus). “Growing-up in Mexico, I lived on a farm for six months. I really loved my grandparents and aunt. I would cut the tunas (cactus fruit) from the nopales and they would cook them for me. The nopal reminds me of those memories. I really love them,” stated Clara.
Clara is no longer a student in the class, but she continues to support food justice and community issues by volunteering with VELA (Light of the Community), a local non-profit organization that sponsors the East L.A. Farmer’s Market. Clara is also exploring her various immigration law interests through a summer internship.
Nonetheless, Clara admits that it’s not always easy to convince people of the need for food justice advocacy in communities such as East L.A. “I remember accompanying my aunt to a First 5 LA meeting in East L.A,” recalled Clara. “I met a teenager who attended the meeting with his mother. When I talked about the project the teenager accused me of helping liquor stores become more profitable. So far that’s the only negative experience I’ve had—most everyone else really loves the project.”
“Overall, I really think the community is willing to change,” said Clara. “People in East L.A. would eat healthier if they had options for buying healthy food.” She’s right. If only they had more options.
Post by John Arroyo.