Caguas sits in a valley nearly surrounded by mountains, just 20 miles south of Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan. Historically, many people in the island’s fifth largest municipality worked in agriculture, especially sugar production. But recent years have seen a dramatic migration from farms and rural communities to urban areas without, unfortunately, a significant shift in economic progress.
Even before the recession, nearly half of Caguas’ 142,000 residents had incomes below the federal poverty level, and 92 percent of public school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Children’s health was dismally affected by families’ struggles, as well as by environmental factors. In 2004, 31 percent of local second-grade students were recorded as obese, a higher percentage than on the island as a whole. Another 16 percent were overweight.
As it confronted such daunting statistics, the Caguas Municipal government, in partnership with SANOS as lead organization and other private and public organizations, launched an initiative to expand physical activity, nutrition and healthy lifestyles. SANOS, a local nonprofit dedicated to health promotion and disease prevention, adapted and used a toolkit created by the National Institutes of Health called We Can! Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition, translating the text into Spanish and making it culturally appropriate for families in Caguas. SANOS will share the new version of the kit within Puerto Rico and with other Latino communities elsewhere in the United States.
Some of their key accomplishments include:
- A municipal resolution to promote healthy eating and physical activity and prevent childhood obesity in Caguas.
- The creation, piloting and establishment of a CicloRuta Vida Activa y Saludable event, a sponsored “ciclovia” that closes four miles of public streets to promote the use of the bicycle as a mode of transportation that increases physical activity, social cohesion and healthier environments. The event emphasizes the engagement of low-income families and advocates the use of existing facilities to get children to be more active. Since it was launched in May 2010, 17 events have involved more than 2,000 families from 77 different neighborhoods and neighboring communities. The event is tightly linked to the ongoing progress of Caguas’ intermodal transit program, Transcriollo, which involves a major citywide renovation of streets, plazas and public spaces for active transportation. The event occurs along the planned route of the CicloRuta, a biking and walking path through the city that will improve access to parks, recreation centers, commercial centers and other local attractions.
- The piloting and establishment of a network of 17 school-based gardens to provide healthy, local produce to students, families and the surrounding neighborhoods. In partnership with a newly created nonprofit to promote sustainability in Caguas, the municipal Education Department, local farmers, school faculty, and a variety of other sponsors and volunteers, the program establishes school-based garden clubs and promotes sustainable agriculture and permaculture education for the next generation in Caguas. In a city where an estimated 86 percent of the food consumed comes from outside the island, the school gardens program is an important part of a larger food security and sustainability initiative led by the mayor.
- Joining with other healthy eating advocates to successfully oppose a pilot program in Puerto Rico to expand the use of SNAP in fast food restaurants.
- Collaboration with AARP to help implement Puerto Rico’s new complete streets law in the very low-income Barriada Morales community of Caguas.
Project Coordinator Cesar Montijo Natal sees the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative heralding a new era in Caguas that supports a healthy and active lifestyle. He says, “We will continue working with partners and organizing communities to make health a priority in Caguas.”