The city of Watsonville and the surrounding Pajaro Valley would seem to have an abundance of advantages for healthy eating and active living. In their southern corner of Santa Cruz County, not far from Monterey Bay, acres of fields growing strawberries, lettuce and artichokes punctuate the miles of open space.
Yet these crops and resources often remain tantalizingly out of reach for the area’s 47,000 residents, many of them Latino migrant farm workers with little educational achievement, limited English, low wages and high rates of seasonal unemployment.
Although governed by separate entities, Watsonville and the unincorporated Pajaro Valley form a unified community in which residents share some public amenities and services. Residents also share in such problems as pronounced health disparities and a lack of access to nutritious food choices and recreational facilities.
They tend to make purchases at convenience stores and fast food restaurants rather than at supermarkets or from produce vendors. Options for outdoor play are severely curtailed because residents consider their neighborhoods and parks to be unsafe. Both within and outside of the city, limited public transportation and insufficient infrastructure contribute to high rates of injuries and deaths involving pedestrians and bicyclists.
In 2003, more than 150 diverse local agencies came together to create Go for Health! (GFH!). A countywide collaborative staffed by United Way of Santa Cruz County, GFH! works to increase opportunities for more nutritious eating and physical activity to reduce high rates of childhood overweight and obesity.
One of its biggest successes has been the creation of the Watsonville Farmer’s Market, which accepts electronic benefit transfer cards and provides on-site child fitness activities on market days. Jóvenes SANOS, a 30-member youth advocacy group that operates under the GFH! umbrella, is another homegrown success. The group has been instrumental in interviewing community members and owners of corner stores about impediments and potential changes to improve the community’s health.
GFH! will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to further refine and share its community data with area leaders, policymakers and advocates. With the city having incorporated language about health into its general plan, and with wellness guidelines in place for students in the Pajaro Valley school district, project director Laura Young knows that follow-through will be crucial to translating “policy points into real life.”
The collaborative also will address city and regional policies regulating the density of fast food outlets as well as features in the built environment such as sidewalks and bike lanes. And through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities focus, it will help corner stores offer more produce from local farms.
“Our biggest challenge is overcoming the infrastructure that right now makes unhealthy choices the easy choices. That will take a long time to undo,” Young said.