Where residents of Brownsville, Tex. saw tragedy, public health officials saw an opportunity.
In 2003, the community just north of the Rio Grande River learned of a horrific crime. John Allen Rubio and his common-law wife brutally killed their three young children, the youngest of whom was just two-months old.
The tragedy gripped the region for years, largely because of the chilling circumstances surrounding it. Rubio said he took the children’s lives because of an evil presence within them. Meanwhile, due to lengthy legal proceedings, the chilling crime was a regular feature in the city’s headlines for years.
In the wake of the killing, Brownsville residents avoided the derelict apartment building and adjacent lot where the crime occurred because of an almost supernatural fear of what happened there, said Brownsville ob-gyn and city commissioner Rose Gowen. Residents only approached the lot next to the building to dump garbage on it.
But today, the site near Eighth Street and East Tyler Avenue is showing signs of life. It recently opened as a community gardens, where 117 area families pay a small fee in order to have access to a garden when they can raise fresh produce. Families eat when they can and sell the rest at Brownsville’s new farmer’s market.
Local leaders named the site the Tres Angeles Community Garden to honor the three young children who lost their lives nearby. They hope the garden – and other efforts throughout the city – can help save lives by promoting healthier eating and exercise habits in a community that’s suffering from a public health crisis.
Of Brownsville’s 180,000 residents, nearly 30 percent live in poverty, 80 percent are overweight or obese, and a third suffer from diabetes.
And to top it all off, nearly 70 percent of residents don’t have any form of health insurance.
“All of that creates a perfect storm in a beautiful community that’s rich in culture,” Gowen said Tuesday at the “Global Lens, Local Focus 2015” symposium, co-sponsored by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Rice 360 Institute for Global Health Technologies.
Gowen, who was elected to the city commission in 2009, said she was inspired to become involved in local politics because she believed the local government needed to play a bigger role in addressing the region’s health needs.
“I found out there was a lot of red tape and a lot of dumb rules surrounding something simple like a farmer’s market,” Gowen said.
Today, community leaders hope an outreach campaign dubbed “Tu salud si cuenta” – your health matters – could hold the keys to solving health challenges that have long plagued South Texas.
The project is the result of work that began at the UTHealth School of Public Health, which in 2003 created an advisory board leaders of leaders from Brownsville’s local government, nonprofits and businesses who collaborated on ways to address the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the area.
Among the campaign’s work is a media program that includes television and radio segments as well as newspaper columns that emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle. The campaign also offers free exercise and nutrition classes at schools, churches and parks six days per week.
In 2008, it opened a farmer’s market in Brownsville that Gowen said is already showing promising results. More than 80 percent of customers reported eating more fruits and vegetables after shopping there, Gowen said.
The campaign also promotes an annual “Biggest Loser”-style weight loss challenge that involves all of Brownsville’s major employers.
City leaders have enacted public policies like sidewalks ordinances, complete streets ordinances and public smoking bans as a way to encourage health living.
The city is dedicating 10 percent of its streets and potholes fund to bicycle and pedestrian improvements. A $1 fee levied on retail customers who use plastic bags goes to a fund for hike and bike trails.
The city also launched a regular "cyclobia" event in which streets are temporarily closed and turned over to bicyclists. Gowen says survey results show 48 percent of participants reported they undertook more physical activity in the weeks after attending the event.
Now that the program has been underway for over a decade, Gowen and other community leaders are eagerly awaiting researchers’ results to see whether all their efforts are paying off.
“We should hopefully start to see results any time now,” Gowen said.
She emphasized that local governments can play an enormous role in improving residents’ health. “I didn’t vote locally until I was elected,” Gowen said. “I didn’t think who my city commissioner or county commissioner is was important. But I was dead wrong.”