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Shopping for a makeover
July 21, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sally Schilling Daily Journal Correspondent

Sally Shilling/Daily Journal Luis Ortiz shows off a produce display in La Guadalupana market in North Fair Oaks in Redwood City.

 As a kid, Luis Ortiz was bombarded with bright alcohol and tobacco ads posted around his North Fair Oaks neighborhood.

"My mom would ask me to go to the corner store for tomatoes but our store only had alcohol and tobacco,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz, now a youth advocate for the Youth Leadership Institute, had to walk 30 minutes to get produce for his mother.

The Youth Leadership Institute surveyed 100 low-income residents in North Fair Oaks. They found that most want produce, but wish that more was available. The lack of healthy options in neighborhood corner stores inspired community activists to transform them.

On Friday, the Youth Leadership Institute celebrated their reinventing of Michoacan Market on Middlefield Road, the third store to receive a "healthy makeover.” The main goals of the store makeovers are to promote produce and lessen the sales of alcohol and tobacco.

The Corona and Bud Light signs hanging inside Michoacan Market were taken down, said Ortiz.

Volunteers helped owner Ruben Robles put up a large plastic marlin over his meat section for a new visual appeal that promotes his fish.

Ortiz pointed to a front room of the store that used to be piled with cardboard boxes of fruit. Now the room has new basket shelves that neatly display mangos, oranges, coconuts and other fruit.

Students from Garfield Elementary are drawn to Michoacan Market’s new displays, said Ortiz.

"Kids come here from Garfield and see the mangos and want to get them,” he said.

A major motivator for Ortiz, 20, is the health of his three younger siblings.

"I don’t want them eating junk food,” he said.

Edwin Cano of the YLI led community members to Pena Meat & Food Market on Middlefield Road which has also received a makeover. He pointed to a new vegetable refrigerator at the front of the store and explained to a group of kids that the new appliance is more energy efficient and attractive. Cano also pointed out that the store is brighter than before because they scratched the dark paint off the windows. The alcohol section now displays signs informing customers that persons under the age of 21 may not make purchases.  

La Guadalupana, the first store to participate, was made over in March 2011. The store was chosen for the project because it does not sell alcohol or tobacco, said Ortiz.

He showed off a bright produce case with a new banner above it. This area used to be dark and closed-off, he said.  

La Guadalupana owner Yolanda Hernandaz likes encouraging people to have fresh fruit.

"The customers noticed a change and they like it,” said Hernandez, who has seen a few more customers since the transformation.

People think store owners just want money but they really care about community health, said Ortiz.

A key factor in the project has been developing relationships with the store owners, said Ortiz.

"It’s not a one-time thing,” he said. "We have to come often to make sure there is trust.”

Store owners are initially worried about food costs but the makeovers are funded by a two-year $150,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to Redwood City 2020.  

The program aims to develop a network so that the stores can eventually support each other. The goal is to give the stores collective buying power so that they can buy quality produce at a low price, said Ortiz.

The group is working on adding two more stores to the network. One of the perspective store owners is Lupe Lopez who owns Arteaga’s Food Center on Fifth Avenue. There is a problem with accessibility of healthy foods for kids, said Lopez.

"It’s important to be educated about eating healthy when you are little,” she said. "It’s hard to break habits of eating fried foods,” said Lopez, who struggles with obesity. "Then you have problems like I have.”

The availability of healthy food is key, said Dr. Scott Gee, pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente. "We can educate people about healthy eating all we want but if the food is not available then it won’t happen,” he said.

The North Fair Oaks community has high rates of obesity and heart disease, he said. "This generation is the first to have an expected life span shorter than their parents,” said Dr. Gee, who has seen his patients’ obesity rate triple over his career. "But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

While many communities have tried similar projects, few have been as successful as this one, he said.

A major factor for the success of this project has been the youth’s successful relationships with the stores.

"Without the owners’ involvement, there is no success,” he said.

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