Mike Blockstein is the Principal of Public Matters LLC , a team that organizes innovative, artistic, place-based projects that build creative, civic and social capital in communities. The organization is based in Los Angeles.
What are food desserts?
Food deserts are not naturally occurring phenomena. They are places where there are fewer large scale comprehensive grocery stores, and there tend to be an abundance of less nutritious foods. You might be able to find fruits and veggies in a food desert, but the quality is really low, and that affects peoples’ diets.
Where can you find a food desert?
Food deserts occur in urban and rural areas, in areas that used to be where produce was grown. They can occur anywhere. You find them all over the United States. If an area has a high proportion of people of color and low incomes, you’re more likely to find a food desert.
Tell us about your market makeovers.
Market makeovers are built through community engagement and involvement. When we do a makeover, the partner is really the community itself. We transform a market, give it a coat of fresh paint, give it some fruits and veggies.
What are some of the challenges you face?
It’s not a field of dreams. A lot of people still won’t know it’s there, and they may not know what to do with the fruits and veggies. So what we do is work with youth. They become peer health advocates in the community. They do hands on work, and they transform the markets themselves.
What is the government doing to help?
There’s a piece of legislation, the National Healthy Food Financing Initiative, would provide direct money to work with corner stores and incentives for larger scale markets to move into food desert areas.
If you move into a food desert, what should you do?
There are all kinds of things you can do. One step is growing your own stuff assuming you’re in a climate that allows it. In many communities now, there are people and organizations that are working on these issues so you can find a group and get connected to their efforts.
Do school lunches help or hurt the problem?
They could help if they had a healthy diet. In Los Angeles, the school district has very specific contracts with vendors, so the food they serve has gotten better but it’s by no means the best healthiest, tastiest, most nutritious food that you can get.
What’s the most common, unhealthy food you find in schools?
They no longer have soda vending machines. You can’t vend sodas in the school but there are other products that they may vend that are not healthy.
Tell us a moment when you knew the work you’re doing was making a difference.
One student who was part of the South L.A. Healthy Communities Initiative, took it upon herself to help her mother lose 60 pounds and introduced a healthy diet into her household.
What can teens do who don’t have access to a car, money, etc.?
They can document things, they can show the conditions, and they can show what it takes to eat healthy. The more stories and visual messages that are out there that come from a youth perspective, the better.
What would you say to teens who have a desire to change things?
Youth have a lot more access and power than they may think. If there’s a group of youth organizing around these issues, store owners are going to listen if a group of youth comes around. They’re going to listen to the youth in a way that they might not listen to adults. Don’t’ underestimate yourself.