Hungry for Change

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on June 23, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

When I’m at work I spend my time involved with others in research and programs that strive to reduce the high rates of obesity and related diseases like diabetes, which are particularly high among folks who have less access to healthcare and are economically disadvantaged in our community. My work allows me to meet a lot of inspiring people who struggle to pay the bills, provide a home for their families and in some cases just to put food on the table. Many of the folks I meet don’t have health insurance and rarely see a doctor. Many are single parents overwhelmed with raising kids. Some have experienced violence in their families or neighborhoods, and most are working hard to provide a better life for their children. I’ve learned that many people face heavy burdens so getting fit at a gym or trying to look good in a bikini are understandably low on the priority list. People just give up on their bodies, or never have the luxury to think about health in terms of prevention and quality of life. There are so many very large people who look very uncomfortable and just don’t have the access, information or resources to make the changes needed for a healthier lifestyle.

Yet when opportunities are provided and people are given a safe, affordable welcoming environment to exercise and access healthy food, they will often work to make the changes. For example, the UT School of Public Health (in collaboration with many other partners) provides free exercise and nutrition classes in neighborhoods throughout the community. These classes are overflowing, vibrant places where many people who have very little come to learn a lot.

Bright and early on any given weekday morning at a neighborhood church in Southmost or Cameron Park, or at a city park gym in West Brownsville, women gather with their toddlers and babies in tow to exercise, learn about healthy eating and to socialize with other women who may have never been given the opportunity to exercise in their lives, but instinctively know this is good for them and good for their families. Many of the moms and grandmas come to the classes on foot, pushing a stroller from their small apartment, or even arrive on the bus, because the time moving, sweating, and laughing with other women, many of whom are very overweight, is a priority for them.  They come despite other overwhelming problems they face each day. Pati is a single mother of three teenagers and a two-year old grandson whom she raises in a small one bedroom apartment. She works as a “provider” (home health aide) for an elderly woman. She is overweight, and looks tired and older than she is, but has a huge smile on her face even at the end of the hour workout. “This time is so precious to me, because I feel like I am doing something for my health, and showing my kids a good example. Before my husband left, he didn’t allow me to try to improve myself because he said I was just doing it to attract other men. He really never supported me when I wanted to be healthier. It was hard to get myself to the exercise class at first, but now I really look forward to seeing all of my new friends, and being silly together as we try to dance and move to the music, even when we aren’t very good at it. I have more energy, and have even lost some weight. I don’t huff and puff if I have to climb stairs and I sleep so much better. My goal is to be healthier than I have been, and not feel so alone trying to do everything on my own.”

I meet these inspiring, struggling people at work, and then I come home and see Hollywood stars flaunting their perfect bikini bodies, bragging about their hours of workouts with personal trainers and expensive diet regimes. I  see posts and photos of my own more privileged friends on Facebook, documenting in detail their complicated food and workout routines, showing their chiseled bodies accompanied by inspiring quotes, as if the money and hours they spend at the gym perfecting their already healthy bodies is somehow making the world a better place.

Different realities– same community. The Rio Grande Valley has some of the highest rates of obesity, poverty and diabetes in the nation, juxtaposed with a segment of the population more and more obsessed with fitness and image, and money to be made through products, gym memberships and trendy work out fashions.  It reminds me of the best-selling book The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. In the fictional world of the book, the country is divided into districts, with District 1 holding the power and wealth and a citizenry obsessed with fashion and make-up and image, and District 12 being the poorest, least powerful place where people barely have enough to eat and wear tattered clothes, working long hours in the mines. It is the reality of the inequality in our world, I suppose. Yet it is in all of our interest for everyone to be healthy—to move more and eat healthier foods, whatever our circumstances may be. Sadly, it is easier to do so when you have money, access and support.  But in the end we are all interconnected. Our economy suffers when over 30% of our population is diabetic with many unable to work long or productively.  Some end up on dialysis or with other costly medical treatments as a result of obesity. It is in all of our interest to provide access, availability and motivation for everyone to make healthy choices, not because we need more bikini bodies, but to improve health and well-being among us all because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta!

Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! is a community-wide campaign of the University of Texas School of Public Health and Transforming Texas to address obesity and associated chronic diseases in Cameron County.