In Santa Cruz County, Calif., carrots aren’t just good for your health—they are also good for business and the community.

Go for Health!, a cross-sector collaborative of more than 40 organizations led by United Way of Santa Cruz County, developed the Golden Carrot Award to recognize restaurants making efforts to improve nutrition standards by offering healthier menu options, including low-fat entrees, smaller portions at lower cost, and healthy substitutions for french fries. So far the award has been presented to more than 40 restaurants in Santa Cruz County, in some cases two years running; it comes with promotion on the United Way of Santa Cruz County’s Web site, media coverage, an official certificate to display, and permission to use the award logo in the restaurant’s own publicity.

Fifteen miles to the south, the lower-income, predominantly Latino farming community of Watsonville faces disproportionately higher rates of obesity compared to Santa Cruz. In 2008 only a single Watsonville restaurant received the award. But in 2010, thanks in part to a determined group of Watsonville high school students and a groundbreaking restaurant ordinance they introduced to the city council, that number grew to six.

The teenage advocates of Jóvenes SANOS, a project of the Go for Health! collaborative, have been raising awareness about childhood obesity since 2005, advocating for policy changes that increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity in their community. Translated from Spanish, jóvenes means “youth,” and sanos means “healthy.” The acronym SANOS stands for Saludables (healthy), Actividades (activities), Nutricion (nutrition), Opciones (options) and Sabaduria (knowledge).

Go for Health! is supported by a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Santa Cruz County is one of 50 sites around the country selected for HKHC, a national program that advances community-based solutions that will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. The program focuses on changing policies and environments to support active living and healthy eating among children and families, placing special emphasis on reaching children who are at highest risk based on race or ethnicity, income or geographic location.

Seventeen-year-old Carina, a senior at Watsonville High School, is one of 15 current members of Jóvenes SANOS. “It’s my third year with the group, and we’ve been working on three different areas—markets, schools and city planning,” she explains. “We try to work directly with the decision-makers—the owners, the principals, the mayor and the city council.”

The group has earned a reputation for teamwork and tenacity, and for doing its homework.

“The students surveyed over 100 individual residents, children as well as adults, and visited all 21 food outlets within a one-mile radius of the high school downtown,” says Laura Young, Director of Community Organizing for United Way of Santa Cruz County and Coordinator of the Go For Health! collaborative. “Although some restaurant owners were happy to work with them, the youth did not get a warm welcome at all of the restaurants. Some owners refused to talk with them.”

Having undertaken a similar project the year before—assessing the healthy food options at markets and corner stores near the school—the students expected some resistance and were up for the challenge. Their careful review of all the menus found that a majority of food outlets failed to meet the Golden Carrot criteria. Recognizing the extent to which fast food contributes to childhood obesity, Jóvenes SANOS at first considered putting forth a proposal to ban fast food outlets altogether near Watsonville schools and playgrounds. Following discussions with city officials and planning departments who were hesitant to discourage local businesses during an economic downturn, the students decided that, instead, they would work with restaurants to help them become healthier places to eat.

“It was a win-win for everybody,” says Young.

Jóvenes SANOS participated in the Creating a Healthier Eating Environments Task Force with staff from the City of Watsonville, restaurant owners and members of Go For Health!. Together, the task force drafted a restaurant ordinance, the first of its kind in Santa Cruz County, for formal consideration by the Watsonville City Council. The pivotal meeting took place October 26, 2010, where following testimony from Carina and two fellow students, the ordinance passed six to one.

Under the new ordinance, existing food outlets are encouraged to expand their healthy menu offerings and provide nutrition and calorie information on all items in order to earn tiered incentives, including a recognition certificate, free advertisement on the City of Watsonville’s cable television station, and free promotion through the Golden Carrot Awards program.

For all new outlets in Watsonville, the guidelines will be mandatory—to obtain a city building permit, new restaurants must provide healthy options. These options can include offering—as alternatives on the menu—at least four choices of fruits or vegetables prepared in a low-fat way, at least one fat-free or low-fat salad dressing, at least one low-fat vegetarian dish, whole grain bread instead of white bread, corn instead of flour tortillas, or whole beans instead of refried beans.

“We told council members that we’d worked really hard and put all our efforts into passing this ordinance,” says Carina, whose leadership and public speaking skills have flourished through her work with Jóvenes SANOS. “One opponent said, ‘Unless you know how to run a restaurant you shouldn’t be telling us what to do.’ But we said that obesity is a serious problem in Watsonville, and that we just want healthy options for our community.”

Carina credits healthy changes in her own habits to her participation in the group. “I don’t drink soda anymore,” she says, “and I eat less chips. I exercise every day. I feel like I’m in good shape.”

If you would like to see a community recognized for its childhood obesity prevention work, please use our comments section to tell us a little about them and how we can get in touch for follow up.