New Mexico Focuses on Expanding Early Successes
New Mexico’s efforts to address its obesity epidemic began in earnest six years ago. In 2007, the state received a grant through the National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practices. The grant, which supported efforts to help children eat healthier foods and be more active, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two-year funding enabled New Mexico to kick-start its efforts with a pilot site in Las Cruces.
At the same time, the state initiated an interagency council, pulling in representation from the state Department of Health; Children, Youth, and Families; the Public Education Department; and five other agencies. Patty Morris, director of the state’s Office of Nutrition and Physical Activity, noted that this council “really lets us set a coordinated agenda, and focus on the strategies that appear most successful.”
With the council establishing an early plan, Las Cruces was able to start work right away. Las Cruces Public Schools offered taste tests to encourage students to try healthier meals and snacks. The schools signed a joint-use agreement with the city that allowed community members to use school resources for physical activities outside of school hours. Together the schools and city also rolled out Safe Routes to School programs to help children and teens walk and bike to school safely.
Their efforts extended beyond the schools, too. Las Cruces passed a city resolution that prioritized more active methods of transportation, such as walking and biking. It mapped restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets in order to inform efforts to increase access to affordable healthy foods, and created a program which enabled local farmers’ markets to accept benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The city also offered cooking classes to participants of SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. In short, the city truly committed to helping families eat healthy and be active.
These early experiences in Las Cruces were important for the state. They enabled New Mexico to secure $3 million in federal funding through the Community Transformation Grants program in 2011 and 2012. The grants and the continued work of the interagency council helped the state take what it learned in Las Cruces and expand its efforts into 10 counties and four tribal communities, including Chaves County, McKinley County, San Ildefonso pueblo, Santa Clara pueblo, Zuni pueblo and Mescalero pueblo.
Having better data to evaluate the impact of its efforts has been a priority. Starting in 2010, the New Mexico Department of Health started collecting data to assess whether the state was experiencing declines in obesity rates. They found that, between 2010 and 2012, the obesity rate among third-graders dropped from 22.6 percent to 21.4 percent, a 5.3 percent decline.
“We’re really encouraged by this early decline, but we know we have more do,” said Morris. “Expanding the work we started in Las Cruces to the rest of the state is our main focus.”
The interagency council is hard at work doing just that―last fall it launched a Healthy Kids 5-2-1-O Challenge to encourage kids to eat at least five fruits and vegetables, have no more than two hours of screen time, be active for one hour, and drink lots of H2O every day. The next round of data on student body mass indices, which will serve as the next assessment of the state’s progress, is expected in the fall.