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Markets in East L.A. get public health makeover

March 18, 2012 | 11:42 am

East la market

Renee Coronado scanned the shelves aimlessly. She didn't need anything for that night's dinner — in fact, she rarely cooks — but she cradled a pineapple and some Indian spices intended for a midday snack.

She kept her Ray-Bans on in the brightly lighted produce section of Yash La Casa Market in East Los Angeles.

"Mom, can I grab some ramen?" her son asked.

"No, mi cielo."

"Its sodium content is too high?" he asked, checking the package's label. Defeated, he put the dried noodles back.

A year ago, Coronado wouldn't have been near Yash. It had no produce section then. Instead, it was the go-to store for 40-ounce beers and Scratchers, the California Lottery's rub-off card games.

But change has come to Hammel Street.

Yash is the first of four markets in the area to get a makeover -- courtesy of a program operated by the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities and funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

East L.A. was targeted as part of a broader effort to reduce the risk of heart disease among Latinos, who make up 97% of the area's population; 85% are of Mexican heritage.

Three years ago, the county Department of Public Health surveyed 1.3 million adults living in the department's eastern district, which includes Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles, where Yash is. The agency found that more than 25% of those polled had been diagnosed with high cholesterol and 30% with hypertension, both often tied to obesity.

"We know that we can't change that just because we announce the importance of fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Michael Prelip, adjunct professor at UCLA's School of Public Health. "It won't change people's views on what they should be eating."

What the program could do, though, was change things that influence dietary choices. That includes the corner tiendita.

In many Latino neighborhoods, the little corner market is the cultural hub, where residents chat with neighbors, grab a snack or stock up on favorite products from Mexico that are tried and true. Yash was no different. Its inventory reflected a tradition of distributors for such corporate giants as Frito-Lay, Pepsi and Coca-Cola offering merchandise discounts in exchange for high-visibility product displays.

That worries Nathan Cheng, a small-business consultant hired by UCLA for this program.

"These stores are not designed by the owner," he said. "They're designed by the distributors."

Cheng first went into the community and secretly took inventory of the little neighborhood stores and their business practices -- a "low-income food access Magnum P.I.," he said -- to determine which would be offered makeovers. Criteria included location and underused retail space.

It took two months to rework Yash, said Cheng, who now mentors owners Kulwant and Balvinder Songu on health-oriented business practices, telling Kulwant Songu, for example, to throw produce away when it's been sitting out too long.

"She wants to … see if they'll sell," Cheng said. "I told them, 'You're never going to make money on produce. It's … a service you're providing your community.'"

The changes are eye-catching. First came neon-lime paint over the faded beige exterior, though a Virgin of Guadalupe mural on the side remains intact. The front windows were stripped of beer signs, letting in natural light. High school volunteers helped develop a 600-square-foot garden out back to emphasize home-grown produce. Inside, the 1,300-square-foot store was revamped to introduce clean, wide aisles and neatly stocked shelves.

The Songus, who were rookie entrepreneurs when they bought the store in 2000, added goods from their native India to complement the $25,000 makeover, paid for by the UCLA-USC program.

Kulwant Songu learned Spanish too. Pointing to pears, she asked if a customer wanted one: "Hola mi amigo! ¿Quieres uno de estos?"

All the effort seems to have worked, even though Yash doesn't yet accept vouchers from the federal program for women, infants and children, known as WIC. Since reopening in October, the store has attracted new customers and given fresh purpose to loyal ones with seasonal specials and monthly cooking classes. In the fourth quarter ending in December of last year, Yash had a 25% increase in revenue compared to the same quarter a year before, according to Cheng.

"My prices are pretty low," Kulwant Songu said when asked about the store's success. "People who are being more budget-conscious are getting more for less."

A makeover at Ramirez Meat Market two blocks away was finished last month. Its exterior is not lime but blue.

At the start, the researchers and doctors in the program saw this neighborhood as a "food swamp," Prelip said, where healthful food options are eclipsed by fast-food restaurants.

Traditions die hard, though. Despite a recent influx to East L.A. of free-range chicken, farmers markets and almond milk, Coca-Cola signs and the smiling face on Sabritas potato chips bags still rule.

Jessica's Market sits on the north side of Hammel, a block from Yash. And like Yash, it has a mural -- this one of Cesar Chavez and the Aztec feathered serpent.

Owner Alberto Gonzalez, an immigrant from Guadalajara, tries to ensure that his 20-year-old business offers the abarrotes, or groceries, that his customers want. There are the daily essentials -- milk, eggs, fruit and tortillas -- but also brands of detergent and other household items commonly found south of the border.

Bills rarely pass through his hands. Transactions are completed with a stack of quarters for a single cigarette or with the signing of a WIC voucher. There is loyalty, too, with or without food vouchers. It helps that he offers an IOU system -- names and numbers in a couple of tattered spiral notebooks.

"Hey, Don Albert," a customer said. "Dame un pedacito de queso fresco."

Gonzalez wrapped up a slice of the crumbly cheese.

"And these Doritos," the man said, dropping a few crumpled dollars onto the glass counter.

"All right, mijo."

Gonzalez said he would have been interested in a store makeover but did not make the final list.

Cheng hopes merchants who did get the makeovers will help residents make healthful food choices.

At Yash, Kulwant Songu tends to the pesticide-free raspberries, peppers, green peas and lettuce growing in her garden and offers customers her favorite Indian recipes. If there are questions — not sure about okra pods? — she explains it all, including preparation.

It's similar at Ramirez's, where the produce display dwarfs the meat fridge. Owner Celia Ramirez, like the Songus, embraced selling fruits and vegetables, even one that gave her pause.

"We, as Latinos, never think about broccoli," she said in Spanish. "It's not something we have in our diet. We have to start thinking about what's good for us."

For Carlos Ceballos, the new Yash means something entirely different.

He used to get his 24-pack of Tecate there but wouldn't allow his two young sons to go near the store. As one of the boys munched on an apple, Ceballos said the open windows and bright lighting changed his mind.

"Now," he said, "I'll let the kids go."


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-- Dalina Castellanos

Photo: Bright paint draws the eye to Yash La Casa Market as Martha Avelar passes by. Owned by Kulwant and Balvinder Songu, it is the first in the area to get a makeover through a UCLA-USC health-oriented program. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times