Houston, Texas

November 2013

Since 2005, when Houston, TX was named the Fattest City in America by Men’s Fitness, top officials have been on a mission to promote wellness among all residents. This is a formidable task. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country. Its two million-plus residents represent a diverse mix of ethnicities, races and nationalities, and many household incomes fall below the national average. Approximately 30 percent of the population lacks health insurance.

Moreover, little about Houston’s current landscape encourages healthy living. Within the city’s 634 square miles, which are divided into 88 “super neighborhoods,” the amount of parkland per resident is about one-third less than the national average. Limited public transportation makes it difficult for many people to use what recreational facilities do exist or shop at stores that offer a good supply of fresh foods. And with 11,000-plus restaurants to choose from, Houstonians eat out more often than residents of any other U.S. city.

Undeterred, local leaders joined together to confront these barriers head-on, and they are already seeing results. CAN DO Houston (Children and Neighbors Defeat Obesity) is a nonprofit organization that is taking a comprehensive approach to reduce childhood overweight and obesity rates that are as high as 46 percent.

Its program engages with neighborhoods to identify their unique challenges and then coordinates available resources from city services, schools and local businesses to find solutions for each. “Historically, Houston’s approach for addressing its childhood obesity epidemic has been fragmented,” Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) Project Director Beverly Gor said. “We strive to connect people with the resources they need.”

With funding through HKHC and help from its numerous partners—including the city’s parks, health and human services, schools and universities, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center—progress is evident.

Within the four-year HKHC initiative:

  • Various physical activity and nutrition environment assessments, along with resident feedback, aided in prioritizing needed community-level improvements related to healthy eating and active living opportunities in five focus neighborhoods.
  • More than 30 residents in two low-income neighborhoods completed a leadership and advocacy program. Graduates are becoming strong advocates for policy and environmental changes to improve options for healthy eating and physical activity. Some have joined city-level advisory groups. Others are becoming trainers for future cohorts. The program is being adopted and replicated by other groups.
  • In partnership with the Houston Food Policy workgroup, mechanisms were established to accept electronic benefit transfer (EBTs) at city-operated and other local farmers’ markets.
  • A new Go Healthy Houston Task Force was created to recommend and implement actions to reduce incidence of obesity and its health and economic impacts in the City of Houston.
  • Gardens were developed at several schools, are expanding and being maintained by Houston Independent School District staff, students and their families.

Gor looks ahead with optimism. “There is still much that needs to be accomplished in Houston to manage the epidemic of childhood obesity,” she said. “But we believe we are headed in the right direction and are leading the way toward developing realistic solutions to creating healthier environments.”

For more information, view a short film about their work.