The 240-mile long San Joaquin Valley is a major agricultural region encompassing eight counties (Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin) in central California. However, residents, many of them migrant workers, are often unable to enjoy the abundance of food grown all around them. People here have among the lowest per capita income, highest rate of poverty and least educational attainment in the state. All are factors contributing to pronounced rates of overweight and obesity, particularly among youth.
However, as a result of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP) and the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) partnership, the Valley’s outlook is changing. CCROPP, the lead agency for HKHC, brought together eight community-based organizations and community partners to build the capacity of community residents as advocates for change in improving local food and physical activity environments.
From 2008 through early 2013, they achieved several key milestones. These include:
The partnership developed a 12-module community leadership curriculum (Powerful People: Building Leadership for Healthy Communities). It provides training around the basic skills needed to help residents become change agents. It is culturally, linguistically and literacy-level appropriate for low-income communities of color and available in English and Spanish.
They provided a year-long advocacy and leadership training program for 127 residents from two cohorts, covering eight counties (comprised of a mix of urban, rural and rural unincorporated communities).
Many graduates have assumed community leadership roles, such as serving as members of their school district wellness committee and other school committees; joining various city and countywide advisory boards and commissions; providing technical assistance to other communities; presenting at conferences across the state; speaking about report findings to media; advising local and state elected officials on policy, systems and environmental change efforts to improve health; and gaining employment as promotoras, caterers and childcare providers.
Graduates helped influence many community transformations and advanced policy and environmental changes. To improve opportunities for active living, leaders advocated for safe routes to school in Stockton, Ceres and Merced, resulting in improved pedestrian and bicycling access around two schools; implemented a Walking School Bus; and secured additional funding to improve pedestrian and bicycling environments. They also improved safety and park amenities in Bakersfield and increased access to physical activity spaces and joint use agreements in Fresno, Fairmead and Stockton. In addition graduates improved healthy food access in all communities, including school farm stands in Fresno and Ceres, EBT acceptance at a flea market in Merced, increased access to fruits and vegetables at a corner store in Stockton, and community gardens in Pixley and Bakersfield. These are but a few examples of the policy and environmental changes they made.
The impact of the HKHC work has been profound at a personal level for participants as well as at the community level where they reside. “Our project has led to more empowered community residents and also to increased policy and environmental change efforts to support healthy eating and active living,” said HKHC project director Genoveva Islas-Hooker. “We have a ways to go. But with our region-wide network of strong community leaders, I see vast potential for improvement in the health of all people in the Valley.”