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City Heights Embraces Its Small Markets

City Heights Embraces Its Small Markets

The City Heights neighborhood of San Diego has long been considered a food desert with its sparse supermarkets. But residents are working to make it an oasis of well-stocked corner markets.

Aired 12/18/15 on KPBS News.

The City Heights neighborhood of San Diego has long been considered a food desert with its sparse supermarkets. But residents are working to make it an oasis of well-stocked corner markets.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Teenagers and storeowner Latif Georges huddle near the produce section of Louie's Marketplace in the Oak Park neighborhood of San Diego. The youth propose a mural of fruit and vegetables to replace the branded beer decal spanning the length of the store.

The teens are part of a youth council attached to UC San Diego's Center for Community Health and they plan to get their hands dirty Saturday making over Louie's. The plan is to take the focus off of candy and chips and put it on the store's new deli and produce sections.

Georges added the amenities two weeks ago, after members of the Oak Park Neighborhood Council expressed their desire for more food options close to home. They helped Georges paint the front of his store. A neighbor with graphic design experience designed his new deli menu.

"I just love how one small store like this can bring a whole neighborhood together," said Billy Luong, a member of the youth council who lives down the street.

USC researcher LaVonna Blair Lewis said this kind of collaboration goes a long way in improving diets in the community. She spent the past two years studying access to healthy food in City Heights.

"I probably would have called it a food desert before we did the work here, because traditionally it's (defined as having to travel) a half a mile or mile to a major market," Blair said. "But what we found out was the local markets are much more robust than what we were seeing in Los Angeles."

Lewis and and students in USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy, which is funded by the San Diego-based Price Philanthropies, surveyed about 200 City Heights residents and found 64 percent of them had no trouble finding or making healthy meals in the neighborhood.

Louie's Marketplace is shown before its makeover in this undated photo.

Louie's Marketplace is shown after its makeover in this undated photo.

That's the case for high school lacrosse-player Ilhan Nunow – though she said she does indulge in an occasional bag of chips.

Nunow, whose bus stop is just outside Louie's, said this weekend's store makeover will make it easier to pass on the salty snacks.

"I know as an athlete you have to keep your body in a good condition and I am going to eat fruits and vegetables more often than I already do," Nunow said.

The UCSD Center for Community Health's Healthy Retail program works with market owners throughout the county to make health-conscious store improvements. It's funded by the county's Health and Human Services Agency.

"It's hard for market owners to say, 'I've never sold this stuff before,' and then to make the investment to do that without knowing what's that risk. It's really scary," said Elle Mari, senior manager of the program. "So we leverage what the community has to offer to benefit the store and the community.

The group plans to be at Louie's Marketplace 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.

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