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Growing up in Chino, I vividly recall repeatedly pestering my mother until she was exhausted as we stood in line ready to pay for our groceries, “Mami, can you please buy me candy?” My eyes gleamed at the endless supply of mazapan, chocolates, gummy bears and sour belts. Her usual response was to sigh, roll her eyes and cave to my demands, as to avoid a dramatic scene acted to perfection by a tiny temper-fueled child. 

Unfortunately, this is far from a unique scenario. Marketing tactics often leverage overt, deceptive, and misleading messages to market unhealthy products specifically to families of color in low-income communities to exploit people and their cultures. Across the country, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people of color are more likely to consume highly processed diets high in fat, sodium and sugars because of little to no availability in their local markets to fresh fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. 

Deceptive marketing practices have contributed to disproportionately high rates of nutrition-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity in our communities. Among the Latinx community, obesity rates are alarming at 47.8%.

Companies develop products aimed to entice people of color, especially the Latinx community. It’s no surprise that junk food is made to appeal to a specific audience with products that are salsa verde flavored, contain limón in the title or are stereotypically brightly colored. In Southern California,  McDonald’s attempted “Fiesta Menu” items that included dulce de leche desserts and Mexican-style sauces. Companies will go as far as enlisting Latinx icons like Bad Bunny to sell overly processed Cheetos because junk food companies know how to cater to specific audiences. Moreover, children who watch Spanish-language television are likely to see eight out of 10 food ads promoting fast food, candy and sugary drinks. 

Checkout lines – the very term can conjure up images of an array of sweet treats, salty snacks, fizzy drinks and the unmistakable sensation of being tempted by a seemingly endless supply of snacks to ease your boredom and relieve tension. Almost everyone has been tempted by an impulse buy at some point in their life. 

What can one do with so many sugary, salty, snack options and nowhere to go?

There is a campaign being piloted throughout California that aims to eradicate unhealthy choices at checkout aisles where the general public is most susceptible to making impulse purchases. 

Public Health Advocates’ Healthy Options at Checkout Campaign for a Healthy Perris is a community-led movement with two sister cities in Fresno and Stockton. This initiative was created so that cities can adopt a healthy retail policy that can address the burden of diabetes and obesity in low-income communities and communities of color. The Healthy Check-Out campaign aims to remove unhealthy items from check-out aisles and waiting areas and replace them with healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and other nutritional snacks.

Around 80% of Perris residents identify as Latinx. Prediabetes, diabetes, and obesity are at alarming levels in Perris, both children and adults suffer from these chronic diseases. Approximately 44% of children in Perris suffer from childhood overweight and obesity, and over half of the city’s residents have reported pre-diabetes. 

When we look at the Latinx-dominated counties in California, the health disparities are glaring. According to Fresno County’s population statistics, nearly half of the county’s population is Latinx. Around 40% of Fresno Latinx people reported living with obesity and 12% of  adults over 18 have been diagnosed with diabetes. Although Fresno is a large provider of produce, access to fresh food is often limited to residents compared to processed foods. 

The trend is not uncommon, since Los Angeles County has an estimated 45% Latinx population, around 11% live with diabetes. Latinx folks make up 44% of Riverside County’s population and Latinx individuals with diabetes account for 12.4%. The Latinx population of San Bernardino County is nearly half, with diabetes affecting 12.7% of Latinx. National diabetes trends display a looming trend of health disparities largely driven by ethnicity. 

High School students like Alexa Flores, Jasmine Lomeli, and Michelle Arreola, who are members of the Perris Youth Advisory Council are aware of their city’s growing health and nutritional needs. They have spoken up in support of the Healthy Options at Check-Out Campaign for a Healthy Perris. 

“Me and my family have found it very hard to find healthy snacks that I can take to school and by the end of our grocery trip we see chips and candy bars at check out making it hard to pick healthy options,” Flores said. “I know I would love to see healthy options at check out and would benefit from it along with others.”

Residents are aware of their community’s health and nutrition needs, and want to make better choices for themselves and their families while advocating for change. The campaign has also garnered increasing support from Perris City Council. The Healthy Check-Out ordinance will be read for the first time at an upcoming meeting, to provide an opportunity to introduce the policy to the public. Afterwards, the council will likely vote on the policy during one of the summer council meetings. 

Meanwhile, food check-out aisle ordinances are already being implemented in other California cities. Berkeley’s food policy ordinance passed unanimously in September of 2020, and went into effect in March 2021, enforcement began January 2022. The new policy applies to stores larger than 2,500 square feet, and will remove soda and candy from checkout lanes to highlight healthier items such as fruits, nuts and items without added sugar. Although Berkeley’s Latino population is small (11%), the prevalence of nutrition-related diseases, like diabetes, is high since 5% of  Berkeley Latinx are diabetic. In large part, the ordinance’s success can be attributed to grassroots efforts led by people of color who realize they are more susceptible to diet-related illnesses. 

Latinx folks are incredibly diverse and are especially susceptible to environmental factors affecting their health and eventual development of chronic diseases and obesity has increased as a result. Consumers’ preferences are motivated by the conflicting need and desire to save money or keep their kids healthy, and can help shape a healthy choice of consumption. Shopping experiences are influenced by product placement, not just the store’s inventory. 

Acknowledging that our communities are aggressively targeted is critical to addressing this health equity issue. We can begin to understand that we have choices and consumers should be able to make healthier choices based on what is available. By encouraging stores to offer healthier items such as fruits and low calorie beverages we can make strides toward building a healthier community. 

Monica N. Acevedo Guerrero

Monica N. Acevedo Guerrero is a Public Health Advocates' Program Manager who lives in Long Beach. She is a Queer latina of Andean-Indigenous decent, who immigrated from Peru at the age of 8 and dedicates...