For all the sweeping natural beauty of Grant County—majestic mountains, fragrant pine forests, high desert grasslands—there is also the triple challenge of poverty, isolation and infrastructure.
The county covers 3,900 square miles, but its population, divided almost evenly between Whites and Hispanics, is less than 30,000. Nearly half of all residents live in small rural communities distant from the county’s four incorporated towns. Thirty-eight areas are designated as colonias because of substandard housing, water and sewage systems and streets.
In this region of southwestern New Mexico, residents have little access to fresh, healthy food due to communities’ isolation and limited infrastructure. Less and less food is grown locally, and trucking it in over long distances leads to higher costs—making fresh produce prohibitively expensive for many families hit hard by job losses in local industries. With one of the worst unemployment rates in New Mexico, families often stretch limited dollars by choosing high-calorie, low-nutrition processed foods.
One consequence: More than a third of all seventh-graders are obese. Obesity rates for children in other age groups are not far behind.
Grant County will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to promote healthier, more active lifestyles for all ages. Only two towns in the county, Bayard and Silver City, have full-services grocery stores, but plans include increasing local agriculture, adding cold-storage facilities for growers and the local food pantry, and creating purchasing cooperatives among stores, restaurants and schools in order to decrease costs. The goal is to increase the supply of fresh foods so that families can easily incorporate fruit and vegetables into their diets.
The Grant County Community Health Council, which is spearheading the project in partnership with The Volunteer Center of Grant County, the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, Hidalgo Medical Services, Grant County Cooperative Extension Service, Grant County Public Health Office and Farm to Table, also aims to get children and families outside and moving. The partnership intends to push for street improvements to increase pedestrian and cyclist usage, the development of local trails, safer parks and playgrounds, and the shared use of school, town and county facilities.
In addition, a newly hired Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities coordinator will act as a liaison to local governments, community members and stakeholders.
“Grant County is known for its strong collaboration between partners who can look at the bigger picture and think about the greater good,” said project director Beverly Allen-Ananins.
The project will build on work that organizations like The Volunteer Center began more than a year ago. Already, several community gardens are being planted, and Bayard recently began hosting a farmers' market. At the same time, groups focused on safe, accessible walking and biking are pursuing funding for Complete Streets design and trails along area rivers.
“Our motto for this work has been ‘the choices we make are shaped by the choices we have,’” Allen-Ananins explained. “Our partners are confident that we can bring about good policy and infrastructure changes.”