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UCLA, USC promoting food quality in low-income communities

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Commonly lacking in low-income neighborhoods are big chain grocery stores, farmers, markets, and other healthy food sources. These areas are referred to as “food swamps” by public health experts because of their lack of available nutritious foods. The UCLA–USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD) and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health have taken a proactive stance regarding this problem. They focused on one such community in in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA; fast food outlets predominate and meals are often purchased at small corner markets. These stores tend to be rundown, uninviting, and focused on selling junk food.

On December 14, the teams from UCLA and USC joined with local Boyle Heights community members to celebrate the grand reopening of the neighborhood’s Euclid Market, which was been transformed into the antithesis of the typical Boyle Height’s corner market. The lackluster exterior has been rejuvenated with a fresh coat of paint. The prominent displays of junk food and beer, which greeted patrons, have been replaced with an array of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, bottled water, and nutritious snacks. The Euclid Market is the third facility in the East Los Angeles–Boyle Heights area to receive a CPHHD-supported transformation. The first opened in November 2011, and the second became operational in February 2012.

The latest conversion was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and was led by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. The Euclid Market is a component of a collaborative strategy with community members to improve eating habits and reduce disease risk among the area’s dominant Latino population, which is plagued by high rates of obesity-related chronic diseases. As most are aware, obesity is one of the nation’s most significant public health concerns.

Alex Ortega, PhD. the director of the UCLA–USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities, explained, “Both of the existing transformed stores in the East L.A. area are reporting increased profits and greater foot traffic, so that’s good news for the small business owner.” Dr. Ortega is a professor of public health at the UCLA Fielding School and the director of the CPHHD. He added, “But it’s even better news for the people in those areas because having access to nutritious food that’s convenient to buy will help folks change their bad eating habits. The goal, of course, is to see improvements in the overall health of our underserved communities.”

The Fielding School has formed a collaborative plan with two area schools, Roosevelt and Esteban Torres high schools, as well as a consulting firm, Public Matters, which designs and implements media, education, and civic engagement initiatives for the benefit of the public. The students receive academic credit for a year-long course, which covers such topics as nutrition and social marketing. They then hit the streets to promote healthy eating among their neighbors, speaking at community events, performing healthy cooking demonstrations and creating promotional videos that highlight the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

In 2014, a fourth store in Boyle Heights will be converted. The CPHHD project incorporates a review process; all four stores will be evaluated over two years using scientific surveys. Final results of the entire evaluation will be available in two to three years. “The hope is that if this project is successful locally here in LA, it will serve as a model for the rest of the country,” explained Dr. Ortega He added, “There is a tremendous need nationally to address the spiraling rates of obesity and related diseases in our low-income neighborhoods.”

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