Cuba, N.M.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

Its natural environment offers desert, forests, mountains and often spectacular sunsets. Its built environment presents quite a different landscape, as residents in the northwest New Mexico community of Cuba can attest.

About 8,800 people live in the village of Cuba or within a 35-mile radius. Many have limited access to fresh produce and recreational facilities, a problem exacerbated by their lack of dependable transportation. Too few roads have safe walkways or sidewalks, and there is no traffic light or stop sign on the heavily traveled Highway 550 as it cuts through the village center.

For residents, more than two-thirds of whom are Hispanic or American Indian, the health impact of these factors is considerable. The rural area’s high unemployment rate also comes into play. Ultimately, many adults as well as children deal with obesity and related chronic diseases. At the area’s only clinic for primary care, the diabetes caseload typically runs 500-plus patients.

In collaboration with residents, state and local groups and elected officials, the University of New Mexico Prevention Research Center will work to implement policy and environmental changes that can make the Cuba area a healthier place. The focus will be on youth.

“This project is about the children in Cuba and the surrounding area. They are at risk for obesity and diabetes and other diseases that we may be able to help prevent by making it easier for their families to buy fresh healthy foods and by providing more opportunities for them to get daily exercise,” said project director Susan DeFrancesco.

The project will seek to involve children and teenagers, too. “It is important for us to get children engaged so we can learn about their ideas and concerns and so they can understand how they can help change their communities,” she continued.

The work will pull in 4-H clubs, homeschooled children and older students participating in service projects. Using funding through Healthy Kids, Health Communities, this partnership aims to:

  • Expand a community garden to include youth
  • Explore and implement ways to increase access to fresh healthy foods in arid, isolated areas
  • Increase the number of safe play spaces for children in Cuba and the surrounding area
  • Make the village more pedestrian friendly, especially along the stretch of Highway 550 that serves as Cuba’s four-lane “Main Street”
  • Identify safer ways for children to get to school.

As much as the rugged terrain can be an obstacle, it also can be used as an advantage. Since 2006, the Step Into Cuba Alliance of individuals and organizations has led a program to expand trails and other outdoor recreational resources. Healthy Kids, Healthy Cuba, as the new initiative is known, could complement its success.

“We already have momentum on the ground,” DeFrancesco said. “We now have the opportunity to bring more resources and energy to the effort and add a focus on children.”

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