The HKHC El Paso partnership confronted barriers to residents’ use of the Chamizal National Park because the dark green park ranger uniforms looked like those worn by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
El Paso is located along the U.S.-Mexico border, a city of 705,000 framed by mountains and surrounded by desert. It boasts of numerous higher education institutions and corporate offices but struggles with the low educational achievement and extreme poverty of many residents. The Chamizal neighborhood is among its most challenged areas.
In this small, mostly Latino community, 41 percent of adults have little English proficiency and 70 percent have no high school diploma. Drugs, gangs and prostitution often prompt fearful parents to keep their children indoors for safety. Couple these problems with very limited access to affordable nutritious food, and obesity is inevitable.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), the U.S. Mexico Border Office of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) with the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF) organized a local partnership to improve conditions, especially for low-income children.
Partners began with an assessment of the food and physical activity environments and by building relationships with key partners and residents. A focus on the Chamizal neighborhood helped ensure a focus on addressing health disparities.
With the aid of an Executive Steering Committee, Technical Advisory Group and many involved stakeholders, the HKHC initiative in El Paso made several key gains:
Partners and residents completed a Walkability and Mobility Assessment in the El Chamizal neighborhood that included GIS mapping of street segments, photographs and policy recommendations. Assessment results and advocacy for change contributed to infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood such as sidewalk and park improvements. The El Paso Intermediate School District and the El Paso City Health Department also adopted the process to expand such assessments throughout the city.
The El Paso City Council unanimously approved Plan El Paso,a ten-year comprehensive master plan which includes, for the first time, a detailed health chapter. The health chapter, written with the aid of many HKHC partners, includes policy recommendations for developing a healthier food system and supporting municipal venues for physical activity. One immediate result has been the formation of a new Food Policy Council.
In collaboration with Project Vida, Chamizal Project and the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso, the first United States chapter of the international Ecoclub network was formed with local youth leaders (ages 5 – 20) to address health inequities. Their projects range from starting a community garden in a housing project to cleaning their neighborhoods through trash pick-up and tree planting. The number of clubs continues to expand.
University partners and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation are developing a new Institute for Healthy Living to provide leadership and innovative approaches for a region-wide focus on policy and environmental change strategies to improve access to healthy, affordable food and safe and accessible places to be physically active. They will continue much of the momentum developed under HKHC.
“This is a true collaborative effort between many partners and local residents,” said project director Maria Teresa Cerqueira. “What happens at the neighborhood level influences city-level efforts which, in turn, impact our region. Everything is interconnected here. That’s why I’m so proud of what has been achieved through our HKHC partnership. There is a momentum that will continue to create a healthier border region for all.”