El Paso is one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, yet it has fewer supermarkets per capita than most major cities. Access to healthy, affordable food is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention, yet many people living in the Paso del Norte region must travel long distances to purchase food or rely on mom-and-pop shops and convenience stores where fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy, affordable food options are limited.
The Institute for Healthy Living (IHL) at UTEP partnered with The Food Trust, a nationally recognized nonprofit with expertise in food access, to assess healthy food access and develop a plan for improvement in the Paso del Norte Region. This project was funded through the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Initiative of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation. A report summarizing the findings was released at a reception on November 8, 2017 at the El Paso Club. The reception included an update from stakeholders who have been involved in developing plans to address healthy food access.
The report includes maps that highlight the many lower income areas in El Paso County with poor supermarket access and a high incidence of diet-related deaths, as well as summarizes the results of a community survey examining resident shopping patterns and perceptions of their food environment. The report also discusses the impact of the U.S.-Mexico border and shares findings from a series of focus groups on healthy food access in Ciudad Juarez.
Leah Whigham, Executive Director of the IHL and Associate Professor at UTEP, explained the unique value of this project and the report. “This report includes rich data specific to our region – data that can inform policy makers and other stakeholders regarding effective strategies to address healthy food access in our region. In addition to the report, we have updates on progress made by multiple partnerships that have developed to address the recommendations in the report.”
Recommendations in the report include a comprehensive approach to addressing healthy food access in El Paso using three key strategies: 1) creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative to incentivize healthy food retail development in communities of need; 2) increasing enrollment in the SNAP program and developing a healthy food incentive program; and 3) expanding in-store nutrition education and marketing campaigns at existing stores. These recommendations were developed through a series of stakeholder interviews and a facilitated discussion at the El Paso Food Summit held in January 2017. In cities and states throughout the country, similar programs have improved healthy food access while creating jobs and strengthening the economic well-being of communities.
Stakeholders involved in this project have included local food retailers, county and city employees and elected officials, members of the El Paso Food Policy Council and the Mesilla Valley Food Policy Council, non-profit organizations, members of the healthcare sector, and researchers from regional universities.
This project is part of the strategic plan for the HEAL Initiative of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation which aims to increase healthy eating and active living in the Paso del Norte region. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake is currently one of the healthy eating goals of the HEAL Initiative because high intakes of fruits and vegetables are linked to decrease risk of several chronic diseases and can help people achieve and maintain a healthier weight. Recommended intake for most adults is about 9 servings a day. Only 15% of adults in El Paso County report eating fruits and vegetables 5 or more times per day.
Michael Kelly, Vice President for Programs at the Health Foundation, noted the importance of healthy food access if we want to improve health in our region. “If people don’t have access to affordable, healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, it is much less likely they will eat a healthy diet,” said Michael Kelly. “Research shows that people who live in communities with access to healthy foods tend to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. Healthy food access is an important component of the overall health of our region.”