BY DR. ROSE GOWEN, MD, Commissioner At-large, Brownsville, Texas
In 2000, the University of Texas School of Public Health placed a satellite campus in Brownsville, a largely Latino city on the Texas-Mexican border. Researchers set to work—identifying the health risks our community faced and designing creative solutions for our unique population.
The researchers found that 80 percent of Brownsville residents were overweight or obese and one-third were diabetic—half of those people didn’t even know they had diabetes. One of the first things the research team did in response was launch “Tu Salud Si Cuenta,” a Spanish-language program on local TV and radio stations. Dr. Belinda Reininger, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health developed the program. She understood the importance of educating people about their health, but she also knew she and her team had to do more.
That’s when Dr. McCormick, dean of the Brownsville campus invited me to participate in their efforts. He and his team believed it was critical to involve clinicians in public health. At the time, I was a practicing physician and the day I met Dr. McCormick my public health education began.
I started by writing a weekly column in the newspaper. I wrote about playing outside at my grandmother’s house when I was a kid and the healthy meals she’d cook for us—activities that had fallen by the wayside with time. I challenged community leaders to make sidewalks and bicycle trails a priority instead of building tollways. The column captured attention and the community began to listen and learn.
Cultivating Access to Healthy Foods
We also backed our words with action. Dr. Reininger suggested starting a farmers’ market to help make fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable and accessible. We looked at examples of successful farmers’ markets as we considered where to locate; what shoppers would purchase; and how to attract growers. Our goal was to create a certified Texas farmers’ market in a city park, which meant navigating a great deal of “red tape” and securing a modest amount of funding.
When Su Clinica, a local Federally Qualified Health Center, wrote the Brownsville Farmers’ Market into a grant to reduce obesity, we launched the market. That grant allowed us to create a voucher program to entice people to try the produce. Community workers distributed vouchers that could be redeemed at the farmer’s market to schools, homeless shelters, wound care centers, and other places to reach those most at risk. Opening day was embraced by all and we sold fifty dozen farm eggs in thirty minutes! The market has been very successful, now operates year long, and has spawned the creation of two sister markets in neighboring cities.
Our wellness coalition then started a community garden program, which was sparked by a grower who received a grant for mentoring and developing neighborhood gardens.
To help launch the “Tres Angeles” garden, promotoras went door-to-door in the Buena Vida neighborhood. Interest was huge: plots sold for $15 a season and sold out fast. Our gardeners have not only been able to feed themselves, they also sell the excess at the farmers’ market and earn $200 a week. That’s a big deal in a neighborhood where the average monthly income is $400.
A second garden is now in place, a third is being built, and a fourth is being planned. The gardens are in low-income areas spread throughout the city. They are supervised, include nutrition education programs, and have replaced empty lots with welcoming gathering spaces filled with smiles and hope. This initiative is not just about health and nutrition; it is very much about economic and community building.
Helping People Be More Active
In addition to helping people eat healthier, we also needed to make it as easy as possible for them to be active. This was challenging because in many parts of the city, sidewalks were nonexistent, in disrepair or disconnected. Kids who were only a block or two from school had to take a bus each day because their streets were not safe for walking or biking.
We passed complete streets, sidewalk, and safe-passing ordinances. Then we began a Build a Better Block Project (BBB). The BBB concept involves turning a block into an optimal version of itself—wide sidewalks, street lights, bicycle lanes, engaging storefronts—for a day. The idea is to let people “try it on for size.”
At first, we chose a block downtown in need of revitalization. To prepare for BBB, the School of Public Health’s dietician worked with restaurants to develop healthier options and streets were transformed into pedestrian-only spaces. Businesses on the block and even those several blocks away saw increased foot traffic and earned more money in one day than they usually do in a month.
We looked further at the built environment and designed the Belden Trail. By using grants and leveraging additional funds from the city, community and national foundations, we turned a dangerous alleyway into a well-lit mile-long concrete path that connects several schools in a low-income neighborhood.
The biggest lesson we’ve learned about addressing health among the Latino community in Brownsville is that we can’t just talk about health. We have to explain how good health benefits all. Healthy children are happier and do better in school. Businesses see more customers when it’s safe and easy for people to walk and bicycle around town. Farmers’ markets and gardens stimulate local economies and help families on tight budgets.
Working collaboratively and proactively is working in Brownsville. Together we’re making changes that will benefit our children today and future generations to come.
For more on our programs and healthy work, see our profiles and videos at Salud America!:
- http://www.communitycommons.org/sa_success_story/tres-angeles-community-garden-freshens-up-downtown-brownsville/, and