For nearly three decades in the impoverished South El Paso, Texas, neighborhood of Chamizal, the nonprofit community-based organization La Mujer Obrera has been providing educational and job opportunities to immigrant women who once worked in the garment industry. As factories closed and unemployment rose, women mobilized, and today La Mujer Obrera oversees an ambitious economic development initiative spanning two city blocks and employing approximately 60 women.
The initiative's centerpiece is Mercado Mayapan, a traditional indoor Mexican marketplace on the site of an abandoned jeans factory. At the Mercado, La Mujer Obrera members sell fresh produce and run a small restaurant. Along with other independent merchants, some also sell dry goods, household items and fair-trade artisan crafts.
Rubi Orozco grew up in a housing project in Chamizal, less than a quarter-mile from the fenced border with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. After attending college out of state and earning a degree in public health, Orozco moved back to her hometown to work in the Chamizal neighborhood.
More than a commercial enterprise, she explains, the Mercado also serves as a dynamic hub of health-oriented activities, including nutrition education and cooking demonstrations.
"Many people have a distorted view of Mexican food, that it's greasy and cheesy," says Orozco, "or that mole is just a chocolate sauce. But authentic Mexican cuisine is actually made of very healthy ingredients—beans and chia, amaranth and squash, chiles and salsas. We try to stimulate curiosity and excitement about our own traditional, healthy foods. I tell people to go back to what their great grandmothers were doing."
Mole [pronounced MOH-lay] derives from an Aztec word that translates as sauce or stew. One type of Mexican mole contains unsweetened chocolate, but mole also can be a green, yellow or red sauce using a combination of different ingredients. At the Mercado's recent mole festival, Orozco displayed sample ingredients alongside a hand-drawn poster board that read, in Spanish and English, "What is mole made of?" The display included pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, raisins, onions, garlic and plantains, along with a variety of chiles and spices.
"Healthy eating doesn't have to mean lettuce," Orozco insists. "We don't have to sacrifice our taste buds! Moles are delicious, complex, nutrient-dense sauces." Mole verde, for example, a green mole, is made of ground-up pumpkin seeds, high in protein, minerals, Omega 3 and vitamin K.
With the county's poverty rate 10 percentage points higher than the national average, in a state where more than one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 is obese, the city of El Paso is taking determined steps to prevent childhood obesity. The Chamizal neighborhood, in particular, has become a model of what a community can accomplish by building on its own cultural traditions.
El Paso is one of 49 sites around the country selected for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that advances community-based solutions to help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It 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, family income or geographic location.
La Mujer Obrera also runs a bilingual daycare center serving more than 40 neighborhood children, from infants to 10 years old. It features a mini community garden where the children grow beans, tomatoes and squash and, through a series of hands-on workshops, learn the fundamentals of plant anatomy and why vegetables are good to eat. Fresh produce is incorporated into the two meals the children receive at the center each day. The children also enjoy healthy snacks, such as jicama sticks and "milkshakes" made of amaranth and bananas.
"Just like with the adults, our goal is to get them curious and show them how tasty healthy food can be," says Orozco, who helps out at the center. Like children everywhere, they face a constant barrage of fast-food advertising.
"Some new immigrants think it's more sophisticated to eat at McDonald's," says Dr. Maria Teresa Cerqueira, chief of the U.S.-Mexico Border Office of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), "especially younger people, wanting to be in style. We work to instill pride in their heritage and the knowledge and self-confidence to say no to unhealthy choices."
Working with schools, churches, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofit community organizations such as La Mujer Obrera, PAHO sees its role as connecting the dots among efforts across multiple sectors. With support from PAHO and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others, El Paso held its first citywide Childhood Obesity Prevention Week in July 2010, enlisting dozens of elected officials and community partners.
"We're letting the private sector know, you're either part of the problem, or you're part of the solution," says Cerqueira.
PAHO also is spearheading an ambitious physical activity initiative that targets all age groups, from elementary and high school students through senior citizens.
"Soccer is our most popular sport," says Cerqueira, "and we're working with the city to build new soccer fields and to expand walking trails around soccer fields that parents can use while their children play."
"If you have an isolated park or soccer field or farmers' market, that's good," adds Luis Castellanos, a medical epidemiologist at PAHO, "but you don't necessarily see it connecting to the fabric of the community and family life. Our goal is to make all the elements of healthy living more integrated."
Rubi Orozco agrees that integration is key to fighting obesity and the chronic diseases it can lead to.
"It's not like when you go to a physician-mandated diabetes class in a building that feels clinical focusing on what not to do," she says. "Here you come with your family and practice being healthy without that clinical feeling. Here it's about a positive, cultural experience."
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