El Paso sits hard against the U.S.-Mexico border, a city of 705,000 framed by mountains and surrounded by desert. It touts numerous higher education institutions and corporate offices but struggles with the low educational achievement and extreme poverty of many residents. The Chamizal is among its most challenged areas.
In this small, overwhelmingly Hispanic community, 41 percent of adults have little English proficiency and 70 percent have no high school diploma. Drugs, gangs and prostitution often prompt fearful parents to keep their children indoors for safety. Couple these problems with very limited access to affordable nutritious food, and obesity is inevitable.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the U.S. Mexico Border Office of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) with the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF) will work to transform Chamizal’s well-being despite its statistics. The goal is policy change that will support active living and nutritious eating—most immediately for the 5,000 children and adolescents living in its isolated neighborhoods.
“We are lucky that in Chamizal we have great synergy with our partners, who have already seen the need and are beginning to transform the community by creating walking trails and parks,” said project director Maria Teresa Cerqueira. “We are going to collaborate with these efforts and other initiatives by the city and engage the residents, especially the young people. If we do not involve the local people, there will be no sustainability.”
Working with the public health and community development departments and other city agencies, the local school district and nonprofit health organizations, PAHO will first use GIS (geographic information system) mapping to inventory the assets and needs of Chamizal and other specific areas of El Paso. The initiative will analyze childhood obesity rates; count restaurants, grocery stores, convenience marts and parks; examine residents’ physical activity and safety concerns; and look at in-school and after-school opportunities for sports and exercise.
Results will be distributed to state and local health authorities, policy-makers, mayors and legislators and will include recommendations on how to:
- Increase physical activity and sports among school-age youth through the revitalization and maintenance of parks, recreational areas, sidewalks and related infrastructure
- Increase public awareness of healthy food choices and the availability of affordable nutritious foods
- Educate community leaders and other stakeholders of the consequences of childhood obesity through policy briefs, trainings and media events
- Create a media campaign to promote healthy eating to children throughout the city, with special input from Hispanic youth.
If policy and environmental change succeeds in Chamizal, the community’s approach will be a driving force to empower local and state leaders to implement similar measures elsewhere.
“We will have change when there are more people walking, families are taking time out to play together, kids are involved in school gardens, and we have a farmers market in the neighborhood,” Cerqueira said. “We want to develop a model in Chamizal—a model for change that can be replicated in towns from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.”