Since 2005, when Houston was named the Fattest City in America by Men’s Fitness Magazine, top officials have been on a mission to promote wellness among all residents. Theirs is a formidable task. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country. Its 2 million residents represent a diverse mix of ethnicities, races and nationalities. Household incomes fall below the national average. An estimated 30 percent of the population is uninsured.
Moreover, little about Houston’s current landscape encourages healthy living. Within the city’s 634 square miles, which are divided into 88 “super neighborhoods,” the amount of parkland per resident is about one-third less than the national average. Limited public transportation makes it difficult for many people to use what recreational facilities do exist or shop at stores that offer a good supply of fresh foods. And with 11,000-plus restaurants to choose from, Houstonians eat out more often than residents of any other U.S. city.
Local leaders have come together to confront these barriers head-on, and they’re already seeing results. CAN DO Houston (Children and Neighbors Defeat Obesity) is a nonprofit organization that’s taking a comprehensive approach to reduce childhood overweight and obesity rates that are as high as 46 percent.
“Our challenge is making children’s health a top priority, especially among families who don’t recognize obesity as a serious problem,” project director Beverly Gor said.
Its program engages with neighborhoods to identify their unique challenges and needs, then coordinates available resources from city services, schools and local businesses to find solutions for each. “Right now, Houston’s approach for addressing its childhood obesity epidemic is fragmented,” Gor said. “We’re here to connect people with the resources they need.”
Early outcomes of a pilot launched in 2008 already show promising results in two super-neighborhood areas, including:
- Working with police to address safety concerns at a local park and increasing youth participation in the park’s after-school physical activity programs
- Starting an elementary-school walking club
- Providing after-school cooking classes for students and parents
- Offering grocery store tours, including tips for buying healthy foods on a budget and reading nutrition labels
- Coordinating more than 300 volunteer hours to support CAN DO Houston
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities and help from its numerous partners—including the Mayor’s Wellness Council, the city’s parks, health and human services and police departments and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center—CAN DO Houston plans to continue its work in the Magnolia and Sunnyside communities and expand its outreach to one additional super neighborhood annually. First up will be Independence Heights. This community’s involvement will bring the number of youth potentially impacted to nearly 17,000, most from low-income, minority families.
Eventually, the project hopes to inspire lasting policies that will make affordable healthy foods and safe places for physical activity available to children and families citywide.
In 2009, Houston fell to #6 on the Men’s Fitness list. With continued support from residents, local leaders and programs like CAN DO Houston’s, it should only keep dropping.