Central Valley, Calif.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

The 240-mile long San Joaquin Valley is a major agricultural region encompassing eight counties in central California. But the bounty of the land does not extend to the population; the 3.8 million residents, many of them migrant workers, have among the lowest per capita income, highest rate of poverty and least educational attainment in the state. All are factors contributing to pronounced rates of overweight and obesity, particularly among youth.

The Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP), a program developed by the Central California Public Health Partnership, already is working to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic in the valley. CCROPP is facilitated by California State University, Fresno and brings together eight public health departments, community-based organizations and community councils. Through previous funding from The California Endowment, the coalition has strengthened the capacity of county public health departments to collaborate with communities to improve local environments for healthy eating and physical activity. It also has built a regional infrastructure to leverage resources, skills, communication and policy efforts for other health improvement activities.

Now, with funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, CCROPP will begin training to provide at least 100 residents across the Valley with the advocacy skills and experience needed to successfully effect change in their neighborhoods. Within the counties of Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin, communities will decide their goals toward greater access to healthy food and physical activity for children. The collective strategy will be such policy or environmental changes as the establishment of community gardens.

"People realize obesity is a big problem for us," project director Veva Islas-Hooker said, "but I don't think they realize all the things that have to happen for us to create change." Too many still think the problem is what she labels a "you change." As in, "you need to eat better, you need to be more physically active. ... They're not looking at how those changes fit into the context of where they live."

More than a third of the Valley’s population is younger than 20. About 45 percent of residents are Latino, and almost the same percentage is White. Obesity is a dramatic irony here given the fertile valley’s orchards and farms.

The region’s agricultural abundance is “a strength that has been maldistributed," Islas-Hooker said. "All of our healthy foods get trucked out and then trucked back in—at a higher cost."

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