2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Brownsville, Texas

The city of Brownsville is located on the southernmost tip of Texas, just across the border from Matamoros, Mexico. With a population of nearly 180,000 residents, over 90 percent Hispanic, Brownsville is one of the poorest metro areas in the country.  

Over the past decade, rapid growth has created a landscape of unplanned urban development that does not encourage a healthy lifestyle. Sprawling highways, several unhealthy restaurants, lack of access to affordable fresh produce, and few places for physical activity has contributed to an overall low quality of life. “One in three of our people are diabetic, and 80 percent are either obese or overweight,” said City Commissioner Rose Zavaletta Gowen, MD. “Those statistics reflect not just those that are the poorest among us, but they also reflect those in the highest income levels. So, the entire community faces health disparities.”

These overwhelming challenges required a multi-faceted approach. The University of Texas School of Public Health’s Community Advisory Board (CAB) who had a primary focus on health, and a business led coalition, United Brownsville, who had a primary focus on economic development and education, came together when they realized that the key to improving health was integrating health with education, economic development and revitalization. 

“Poverty, jobs, education, and health are all connected and you can’t examine one without the other. Among all those challenges we have a great many strengths, but our strongest asset is our people,” said Gowen. “They want to feel better and they are looking for solutions.” 

As part of the City’s revitalization efforts, the La Plaza at Brownsville Multimodal Bus Terminal opened in 2011. It was part of a movement to restore downtown that includes a performing arts center and improved streets and storefronts. Brownsville is also restoring oxbow lakes, known as resacas, unique to region. Resaca restoration is important to the city’s economic vitality, and promotion of physical activity.

“Brownsville in Motion” became a movement to increase physical activity in the community. City leadership adopted a Complete Streets and a Pedestrian Safe Passage policy. A master hike and bike plan will help to ensure that every resident will be within a half mile radius of a trail. Efforts like the CycloBia attract thousands of residents who walk, run, and cycle in traffic-free streets, usually on Sundays. The initiative also helps economic development downtown as residents visit local vendors and restaurants. 

The Bike Barn is another way to encourage bicycling, while also serving as a job skills training site.  Created by the city’s park and recreation department, Bike Barn is a venue for bicycle repairs and safety classes. Youth are provided a bicycle (donated by the Police Department) and can take it home once they have worked on it for 20 hours. 

To change the food environment, the Brownsville Farmer’s Market has served an average of 650 residents each Saturday, year-round since 2008. In addition to produce, the market provides interactive cooking and exercise demonstrations in a family friendly environment. Outreach to disadvantaged communities has increased participation amongst those most in need, as has over $20,000 of donated “farm fresh vouchers” for needy families. As an extension of the Market, a variety of partners came together to create support the development of community gardens throughout the city. Families gather for training on small business development and nutrition and plant their gardens in donated lots. Growers are also able to sell their produce at the Brownsville Farmer’s Market which provides additional income.

In addition to making policy and environmental changes, Brownsville works tirelessly to educate the community on healthy lifestyles. Promotoras—Community Health Workers—conduct home visits to address families’ needs and connect them with appropriate health and social services. According to Gowen, the success of the Promotoras lies in that “they come from the community, they identify with the community, and they are welcomed.” In 2003, CAB launched Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (TSSC), a bilingual community-wide campaign aimed at educating residents about physical activity and healthful food choices through recurring television, radio and newspaper coverage.  

Gowen concludes, “People in Brownsville are looking for better--better economy, better education and better health. We work hard every day to build a Culture of Health in Brownsville.”

Learn more about Brownsville's efforts to improve health at RWJF.org.