Building a Culture of Health in Brownsville

Jan. 29, 2020

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

In 2014, the City of Brownsville, TX, along with the UTHealth School of Public Health (UTHealth) and its Community Advisory Board, received the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Prize for their efforts to address health disparities. It was a significant milestone for the U.S.-Mexico border community, and almost two decades in the making. Brownsville is a diverse and culturally rich city with immense natural and historic resources, but it struggles with high rates of poverty and chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and low insurance coverage across all ages and most demographics, when compared to the Dashboard’s cities. Despite these challenges and limited resources, the community’s assets – including strong social-connectedness, vibrant biculturalism, a mild year-round climate, and leadership poised to take on these challenges – have fostered a unique spirit of collaboration resulting in strides toward building a culture of health.

Building momentum across sectors

Brownsville’s leadership in this movement has been crucial. When city leaders and UTHealth researchers identified alarming rates of chronic disease across the city, they partnered together to begin collecting robust, local longitudinal data through the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort to better drive policy decisions. Established in 2004, the findings from this study have been widely shared with stakeholders across the community, including business leaders, media, community-based organizations, education, and healthcare. Providing this local data to decision-makers and across sectors has energized the community and city health department officials to learn new best practices, pivoting their focus towards grassroots, culturally-resonant health promotion and wellness approaches, including open streets events, community gardens, and healthy weight loss challenges. The Culture of Health Prize has helped the health department and UTHealth continue to build momentum around well-being and create strategic partnerships across the City of Brownsville and its neighboring cities throughout Cameron County. They are setting bold visions for the region to systematically address the real health and economic challenges faced by local residents.

A wellness renaissance in Brownsville

The city and region overall are in the midst of a “wellness renaissance,” culminating in a diabetes rate reduction and an 11-city collaborative effort committed to growing infrastructure, policy, and programs to promote physical activity and healthy nutrition for all residents, regardless of age or income. Over the last few years, sidewalks, parks and trails have expanded, and small businesses have popped up all over town serving a young and growing population increasingly interested in fitness and health. The city now boasts dozens of gyms, cycle shops, yoga classes, healthy cafes, cycling, walking and running clubs, and community runs and rides every weekend.

Cities are looking to Brownsville as an example of what’s possible in their community. UTHealth’s local campus obtained grants to provide seed funding, training and a clear model of health programs and policies to other municipalities in Cameron and now Hidalgo counties. These unique communities are replicating and tailoring approaches implemented by Brownsville such as complete streets, worksite wellness programs, and supporting embedded Community Health Workers as city staff to provide screenings and referrals to those with limited access to health care and insurance, to name just a few!

Healthy communities…they’re good for business

Introducing local residents to their eco-environment through these sorts of activities has not just been good for healthy living, it’s been good for business. We’ve been able to strengthen our local economy, driving small business growth, establishing the city and the Rio Grande Valley as an active tourist destination, and most recently, inviting national attention and investment. This focus on health has led to an award-winning collaboration to build a 428-mile network of multiuse trails, bicycle routes and waterways that capitalize on the area’s rich natural and cultural resources, called CaraCara Trails. The D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has taken on this plan as a project of national significance and is helping attract funding and attention to the area. The trail route is expected to draw tourists from neighboring Mexico and the U.S. and will provide infrastructure for use by local residents, improving health and bringing funding and tourism dollars to the region. A recent economic impact study by the Harbinger Group projected that, when complete, CaraCara Trails’ six catalyst projects will bring in $39.6 million a year in tourism to Cameron County, create 554 jobs, with $57 million in total economic impact and $9 million in local state and federal taxes. The impact on the local residents beyond economic growth is medical cost savings, estimated at $3 to $6 million annually.

Brownsville is excited to be working with the City Health Dashboard, as they support our use of evidence-based programs and policies to improve health, as we continue building a culture of health.

Lisa Mitchell-Bennett, MA, MPH, manages community initiatives and partnerships promoting lifestyle change to address chronic disease at the UTHealth, School of Public Health regional campus in Brownsville, Texas. She enjoys getting outside with her family, and the climate, culture and natural beauty of her Rio Grande Valley home.

Brownsville was featured as the January City Spotlight. Learn more about the City Spotlight here. If you’re interested in having your city featured in City Spotlight, please contact us at [email protected]

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