Between its founding by Catholic missionaries in the early 1700s and its vivid mix of Spanish, German and other cultures, San Antonio is one of the most historic cities in the country. It is also one of the heaviest—a distinction it’s more than ready to shed.
Local leaders in this predominantly Hispanic city have been addressing the issue through multiple lenses as they work to combat rates of obesity and overweight as high as 76 percent. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health) and San Antonio Restaurant Association recently formed a partnership to press for healthier restaurant menus. By introducing options with lower calories, fat and sugar, they hope, restaurants will create greater consumer demand for such foods. A small pilot is already under way at a Mexican restaurant.
Now the health department will lead more than a dozen agencies and organizations in an initiative to reduce childhood obesity through policy and environmental changes. With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the groups will work in schools and neighborhoods as well as restaurants.
“San Antonio is known as a fun place to live and a great place to visit, but it has not always embraced healthy behaviors as they relate to physical activity and food,” project director Bryan J. Alsip said. “As in any community, the more barriers that are present for healthy eating and active living, the more difficult the challenge. We are looking to remove those obstacles and get the community to take advantage of new and healthier opportunities.”
The Healthy Active San Antonio partnership will aim to expand residents’ use of school gyms, playgrounds and other facilities outside of regular hours. In addition, it will push to have new development and redevelopment projects incorporate Complete Streets design into their planning. Finally, it will continue the work with local restaurants on healthy food and beverage guidelines, with potential incentives to recruit participants and encourage the guidelines’ adoption.
All three approaches recognize the need for broad interventions; as Metro Health officials acknowledge, tackling a problem like obesity at what’s typically been the individual level is costly and hard to sustain.
Although the partnership will work throughout Bexar County, where San Antonio is located on the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country, its efforts will be concentrated on the city’s west side. That densely populated area includes more than 106,000 residents, a third of whom live below the federal poverty level. Educational achievement is lower and unemployment higher. Most workers hold blue-collar jobs.
If the interventions are successful on the west side, they could be replicated across San Antonio. The partners hope that success in increasing options for physical activity and availability of nutritious food will translate into grassroots and political support for policy changes to promote healthy eating and active living.
“The partnerships forged during our work with the San Antonio Restaurant Association and other organizations have led to opportunities to work collaboratively on like-minded efforts,” Alsip said. “With Healthy Active San Antonio, we’ll leverage those partnerships again to directly impact the community.”