Leading Local Advocacy Organizations Press Changes to Help Reverse Obesity in Communities of Color Nationwide

    • May 31, 2011

In East Los Angeles, Latino residents are pushing for “health empowerment zones” that would be anchored by local schools and bring together resources and services promoting wellness.

In Chicago, corner grocery stores run by Muslim owners are at the center of cultural and faith-based partnerships to improve access to fresh foods and reduce shelf space for unhealthy ones.

And in New Orleans, where parks were recently privatized, the grassroots rallying cry is for recreation space and programs for African-American youths and against the city’s new “pay to play” system.

In these and 19 other communities of color across the country, prominent local advocacy organizations are working toward major changes in public policies and neighborhood settings that will allow families to lead healthier lives. They are the collective force of Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE), a $15 million program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that is central to the goal of reversing childhood obesity.

All are leaders on a wide span of social justice issues, including workers’ rights, education and climate change. Through CCHE, they’re leveraging their organizing savvy to mobilize residents and build support for long-term changes that range from public land set asides for urban farming to zoning laws that limit the number of fast-food restaurants.

“We won’t solve childhood obesity without addressing the root causes that make it so difficult for families to make healthy choices in the first place,” said Makani Themba-Nixon, CCHE project director. “Foremost among these problems are neighborhoods that don’t have affordable healthy foods or aren’t safe to walk around or play outside.”

Ten groups have had projects under way since late 2009, and 12 additional groups were selected for the program in late 2010. The communities stretch from Miami to Yukon, Alaska, and their diversity appears equally vast. Four CCHE grantees represent American Indians. Another is involved along the Mexican border in the colonias of Hidalgo County, Texas. Another is in New York City, pressing for greater recreational space within the Southeast Asian community of the Bronx.

Their alliances suggest the breadth of support needed for substantive change. Padre Unidos, for example, is intent on strengthening food and physical activities policies for students in Denver. Toward those dual goals, the organization and its youth initiative, Jóvenes Unidos, are partnering with the public school system, food worker unions and farmers.

The current momentum is powered in part by the experience of past initiatives. Several of the California grantees can claim noteworthy successes, including Inner City Struggle in East Los Angeles and Community Coalition in South Central Los Angeles. Inner City Struggle engaged thousands of families in advocacy that resulted in the Eastside’s first new school construction in more than 40 years. And CoCo, as it often is known, united South Central’s African-American and Latino residents to win a moratorium on fast-food restaurants that attracted national attention.

Still, they and each of CCHE’s grantees face formidable issues. All work within lower-income, underserved communities where the obesity rates are disproportionately high. Nationally, nearly a third of children and adolescents are obese or overweight. The Foundation is aiming to reverse this epidemic by 2015.

“The challenges confronting our communities have only become more acute because of state and local government cuts in services and support during the last several years,” Themba-Nixon said. “They highlight how critical it is to move beyond individual blame and focus on the policy and environmental issues behind obesity as well as other health problems.”