Houston Tries to Slim Down with Food, Fitness
Posted on 01/04/2016
HealthyHouston

 

Source: USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/09/29/houston-tries-slim-down-food-fitness/72756826/)

HOUSTON — This sprawling Southwestern metropolis used to have a Texas-sized obesity problem, topping the scales as America’s fattest city. And no wonder — healthy food and safe places to exercise were hard to come by for many residents.

But an initiative launched by Mayor Annise Parker in 2012, called Go Healthy Houston, has worked to change that dubious distinction by giving people better access to healthy foods, physical activity and tobacco-free zones. It’s one of many similar initiatives in cities across the nation aiming to improve health and reduce the cost of care among whole populations by creating an environment that makes healthy choices easier.

The initiative, highlighted during a recent forum here sponsored by USA TODAY and Cigna, has helped focus the often-redundant health programs from all over the 600-square-mile city towards the common goal of health. It means mother of four Laura McBroom, one of thousands of Houstonians living in “food deserts” with no easily accessible grocery stores, can now get fresh fruits and vegetables at her neighborhood convenience store. And teacher Chuy Benitez can ride his bicycle safely on a protected bike path instead of battling dangerous downtown traffic.

“The city government can either be a victim or a victor…in providing the types of policies that enable citizens to become healthier,” said Omar Reid, Houston’s human resources director, who has helped implement Go Healthy Houston. “One of the things that’s different about city government is our ability to get things done quickly compared to the federal government.”

There’s a lot of work to do. In a 2013 federal survey, only 15% of Houston-area adults reported eating the recommended five or more fruits and vegetables a day, and just 18% said they met federal exercise guidelines. Nearly two-thirds are overweight or obese, 11% have been told by a doctor they have diabetes, and many face barriers to health care, with 22% in poverty and 23% lacking health insurance.

City officials hope to make a dent in those statistics with programs such as the Healthy Corner Store Network, a partnership between Go Healthy Houston and community organization CAN DO Houston. It involves getting fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy beverages and healthy snacks onto convenience store shelves in food deserts, and educating consumers with things like sampling and cooking demonstrations. Piloted in 2013, the program has been in place in six stores for the past year.

“It’s been rather successful,” said Jasmine Opusunju, executive director of CAN DO, which stands for Children and Neighbors Defeat Obesity. “…You start to see some of the purchases at the stores increase because they have the opportunity to interact, try it and realize, ‘This is pretty good...'"

Opusunju said there’s been a learning curve. Organizers originally put up signs saying “Buy fresh produce here,” but quickly learned that people didn’t know what “produce” was. So they changed the signs to say “fruits and vegetables."

Today, a colorful A-frame sign greets shoppers at the entrance of Southland Market, where baskets of bananas, apples and oranges are tacked up across from the cashier’s counter, where they can be easily spotted.

Although he has a car and can go to the grocery store for fruit and vegetables, barber Tre Mims loves that the store has “made it more convenient” to eat right. He likes to grab an orange or a banana instead of the junk food he ate before he lost 100 pounds.

Mims was shocked in 2012 to see his weight had gotten up to 374 when he hopped on a scale while visiting the doctor with his mother in law, who used to have diabetes. Now, he works out every day, eats lots of vegetables and no longer suffers from high blood pressure.

McBroom said many of her neighbors struggle to find healthy food.

“There aren’t any grocery stores in our community within walking distance. You have to be bused out if you don’t have transportation. So people go for fast food, which is all that’s easily available,” she said. “If… we want to become a city of healthy choices and healthy living, then we have to be provided with options.”

To create more options for exercise, the city this year opened its first protected bike lane — a bright green path in the heart of downtown, separated from car traffic by humps that look like the backs of armadillos emerging from the pavement. Similar lanes have been installed in Michigan, Indianapolis and elsewhere.

“It’s the start of Houston building out its bike network,” said Mary Blitzer of Bike Houston, a local nonprofit bicycling advocacy organization. “This shows a way that bicycling can be less scary…Having more places to ride is going to get more people to start riding.”

Blitzer said she loves commuting by bike, and enjoys another big perk: “I don’t have to go to the gym and get to eat what I want.”

Benitez said he lost 10 pounds in the first month after he sold his vehicle and decided to bike to school.

“I’m really happy that there is a bike lane now, but…most cyclists will tell you there needs to be a ton more than just one,” he said. Still, he he’s seen three times as many cyclists on Houston roads as two years ago and expects a bigger network of bike lanes within the next five years.

While it’s impossible to say at this early stage how much Go Healthy Houston has moved the city’s health needle, one good sign is that the city is no longer the fattest in the nation. A 2015 WalletHub obesity ranking of the Top 100 U.S. metros put Houston at 35 (with No. 1 being the city with the least obesity.) But city officials and residents acknowledge there’s a long way to go.

“I think there is definitely room for improvement,” Benitez said. “I love that there’s been a change.”