The produce section of El Campeon, a market serving mostly Latino shoppers in San Juan Capistrano, is the picture of health, literally.

The crates and shelves overflow with a rainbow palette of fruits and vegetables. Customers make soup from one of the more popular items, Mexican squash, and they also eat a lot of papaya, according to store clerk George Zepeda.

“San Juan Capistrano has a lot of great places to shop for fresh and affordable fruits and veggies,” said Carla DiCandia, who manages community wellness initiatives for St. Joseph Health Mission Hospital.

In addition to El Campeon, there’s El Nopal and Mercado El Rey, which range from less than a quarter-mile to a mile from La Zanja Street, a Latino enclave. (And Mercado El Rey will give customers a ride home if they live close by and meet a spending minimum.)

San Juan’s prevalence of markets runs contrary to the idea that a majority of low-income urban neighborhoods have become vast food deserts lacking access to fresh produce or grocery stores. Along with the notion of food deserts are widely held beliefs that school districts have dropped physical education from their curricula and that there is a paucity of open spaces for children’s play.

Rising obesity rates in inner-city neighborhoods indicate barriers to healthful food and exercise, and food deserts certainly exist in some of the nation’s sprawling metropolises. But close examination of these barriers in Orange County show that they exist in more complex ways than is sometimes portrayed by health advocates and in the media.

Santa Ana’s ‘Food Swamp’

In Santa Ana’s low-income Willard neighborhood, there’s a nearby grocery store. “Seventy percent of people go to Big Saver,” said Alejandra Rodriguez, who works in the area. “People walk and drive there, but it’s close by — two blocks.”

Farther north, at least two grocery stores lie a third of a mile from the neighborhood surrounding Victor Zuniga Park in Stanton, a city revealed in a recent study to have the highest percentage of overweight and obese children in Orange County.

But food shopping is harder in these neighborhoods for people without cars. Transporting heavy bags of food is particularly difficult for a mother accompanied by young children.

Northgate Gonzalez Markets, which are full-size Latino grocery stores in a half-dozen Santa Ana locations, will give shoppers a ride home if they spend a minimum amount. But even the required $30 or $50 might be too much for some.

Residents on foot are more at the mercy of vending trucks and corner stores. And while many vending trucks in Santa Ana sell milk, tortillas and basic produce, they also sell junk food. At corner stores like Bill’s Market on Chestnut Street in Santa Ana, the produce offerings are meager.

The city’s food climate “is not as much of a food desert as a swamp,” said Ava Steaffens, CEO of KidWorks, a community organization.

“What I’ve drawn from the research on this topic is that it’s not just whether there is that corner store that has the papaya and Mexican squash or one with just a shriveled onion,” said Susan Babey, research scientist at UCLA’s School of Public Health. “It’s also whether right around the corner from the store there are four fast food restaurants or four more convenient stores.

“It’s sort of the food environment overall that people are confronting,” she said. “Is it a balanced mix of some healthy and unhealthy choices, or is it seven unhealthy choices to the one healthy choice?”

Then there are cultural issues.

For example, in Huntington Beach’s low-income Oak View neighborhood, some residents shop at Northgate in Santa Ana rather than the local Stater Bros. market less than a mile away. They feel more “culturally comfortable” in the Latino store and don’t always feel welcome in mainstream markets, especially when paying with a public assistance electronic benefit transfer card, according to Iosefa Alofatuli, executive director of the Oak View Renewal Partnership.

Where Have You Gone, Joe Gym Teacher?

Public health advocates often bemoan the cutting of physical education classes in budget-depleted schools. And like food deserts, cuts to PE are a reality in some urban areas, most recently in New York.

But in Orange County it’s hard to find hard evidence of PE classes being cancelled outright, according to Chris Corliss of the Orange County Department of Education. In one of the county’s largest school districts, Santa Ana Unified, officials said they have made no reductions to PE.

State law mandates 200 minutes of PE for every 10 school days at the elementary level and 400 minutes every 10 days in upper grades. But experts say the requisite minutes are not doing enough to improve fitness.

One problem is that 90 percent of elementary PE teachers in the county are not full-time, credentialed specialists, Corliss said. In many districts, regular classroom teachers are saddled with the job, but they don’t have the time, expertise or equipment to set up activities.

Even with full-time instructors at the secondary level, “traditional PE is not working well in schools,” explained Todd Harvey, an award-winning PE teacher in Santa Ana.

The beginning of every PE class is largely wasted in the locker room and waiting to take attendance, which prevents kids from being active for the full 35-minute class period, Harvey said.

Further, traditional PE programs that emphasize sports often fail for a number of reasons, Harvey has observed. In some cases, girls are not comfortable competing against boys athletically, and overweight kids often shy away from participation.

Lower-income students haven’t always had exposure to organized sports and are less prepared to play them. Differing resources also affect the variety of sports that can be played.

“In our district, certain schools have tracks and football fields and certain schools don’t,” Harvey said.

What works better is PE designed around individual fitness, but this kind of program requires equipment and a place to set it up.

Harvey led an effort to bring stationary cycles and weights to Willard Intermediate School, but it took time to find space for machines and apply for grants to get the same kind of exercise equipment that is commonly found in wealthier school districts.

Once the program was established in PE and after school, “we reduced BMI [body mass index, a measure of obesity],” Harvey said. “We went from traditional sports where kids are not so interested or feel intimidated or feel self-conscious to having the option of going into a spin [stationary cycle] room or a fitness class. Giving kids options, I’ve seen it change kids’ lives: the amount of activity, the laughter, kids having fun.”

Tall Fences Surrounding Green Grass

On a recent Saturday, Maria Lucas found herself watching her 2-year-old brother as he scampered around the parking lot of Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Ana. As she herded him away from the street and he played with dirty chains dangling from a gate, Lucas glanced at the playground a few feet away.

But as with many playgrounds in Santa Ana and other park-deprived cities, the slides and swing were off limits and fenced.

Santa Ana has two communities where there is no a park within a half-mile. The Roosevelt Elementary community is in one of them and Willard Intermediate is in the other, according to Gerardo Mouet, executive director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency. Both schools, meanwhile, have significant play areas that are fenced off from residents on weekends and during the summer.

“After I moved here, I realized all the green space is at the schools,” said Steaffens of KidWorks. “Santa Ana is built out, … Where else are we going to get open space if not the schools?”

Fortunately the school in her community, Monte Vista Elementary, will soon make its basketball courts available to kids on the weekends. And plans are underway to open Roosevelt and Willard to the community after upgrades and construction.

But negotiations over upkeep, repairs and liability go into every joint use agreement between a city and a school district, so these arrangements are uncommon.

Meanwhile, residents with access to open spaces don’t always flock to them for fear of crime.

For example, in the once-gang-infested Townsend Raitt community, “I know mothers were keeping their kids from going out to play out of fear,” Steaffens said.

Being trapped indoors does little to enhance youth fitness. But making a playground available to a high-crime neighborhood doesn’t ensure its use either. Mouet said maintenance of parks is key to making a community feel safer in them. And people in high-crime neighborhoods have to be coaxed at first to venture out.

“When you’re used to being afraid, it’s paralyzing,” Steaffens said.

She said that since a combined police and community effort helped turn around the neighborhood, more families use nearby Jerome Park.

Still, setbacks remain. Police said that last month there was a shooting in the area, but so far, people haven’t retreated to their homes, Steaffens said. “I think the community here has taken back the park.”

Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at

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